These kinds of products provide the tools you need to create an online shop without having to do any programming. In the UK and much of Europe the pre-packaged ecommerce software market is overwhelmingly dominated by a Surrey based company called Actinic. The company’s shop building software is a favourite with small business users who want to set up their own web sites and professional web developers who create sites for multiple clients.
Although no independent figures are available for the ecommerce software sector, Actinic claims 56 per cent of the UK market and, as Chris Barling, the company’s chief executive officer puts it, “We are seven times bigger than anybody else in the market, so we do not have a main competitor”. Similarly priced alternative products are available, such as Astrosell (www.astrosell.com) and Erol (www.erolonline.co.uk), but these are from relatively small players and lack the technical maturity and support infrastructure that Actinic is able to provide. In the United States Actinic competes with the StoreFront product range from LaGarde (www.storefront.net) but although this software is the American market leader it is not currently sold in the UK.
Actinic sells three versions of its product, Actinic Catalog (#379), Business (#799) and Developer (#1500). The most basic version, Catalog, is designed to allow non-technical users to easily get an online store up and running, while the Business version provides more advanced features such as customer accounts and merchandising tools for people who need a more sophisticated solution. The Developer edition is pitched at professional web designers, allowing them to build multiple stores for different clients.
Catalog is the most popular version, a fact that demonstrates that many businesses still prefer to dip their toe into the world of ecommerce before making a major financial commitment. Barling explains, “In the old days the way you did business was ‘ready, aim, fire’ you get yourself ready, you do lots of planning and finally when you’re ready you execute. Whereas I think more and more in business people want to get something out there and get some true customer feedback, it is more of a ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach where you stick something out there and then you find out where you want to aim exactly. Catalog very much supports that, it is low cost, it has everything you need to get going online, but at the same time it is the thing that gets you started.”
The mechanics of setting up a site with Actinic Catalog are relatively straight-forward. The software installs on an ordinary Windows based PC and creating a site can be as simple as choosing a design from the library of templates and then entering your own business and product details. Any reasonably competent computer user should be able to set up a basic shop and, with a little time spent experimenting and reading the manual, more sophisticated options should be within the grasp of most users.
The software automatically builds the site on your desktop PC, but in order to get it online you will need some web space from a reputable hosting company such as One and One (www.1and1.co.uk). Given your basic login details the software should be able to detect the necessary settings and automatically upload the store to your web-space, but on the occasions when this does not run smoothly Actinic’s support team will help you work out the correct settings.
In order to accept online credit card payments you will need an account with a payment processing service, Actinic is compatible with all of the leading services including PayPal, WorldPay, HSBC and Barclays ePDQ.
Although it offers a market leading feature set, Actinic’s key benefit is that because the product is so widely used there is a reassuringly wide support network. The company has numerous partners which offer a range of related services including hosting, customised templates and training. The product is simple enough for a non technical user to dive in and start building an ecommerce site without any external help, but people who want that help will find no shortage of third party companies able to provide whatever assistance may be required.