E-Commerce Software Challenge

By Jim Thompson | Posted November 25, 2003

Choosing the right e-commerce package can be a lot like getting married. There are plenty of partners available and they all promise to love and obey, but once the champagne has lost its fizz, the real test is which one can deliver over the long haul.

In the end, the trick is to figure out which cannot only give you pleasure now, but also can satisfying your needs in the future. Both Actinic and StoreFront 6.0 offer tantalizing features and the promise of a long-term relationship. Deciding which one is best for you depends upon your current and future needs.

Actinic Developer 6.1
Actinic comes in three versions: Catalog, Business and Developer. The basic package, Actinic Catalog ($495), provides the essential tools for selling on the Net. The Business version ($1,195) offers additional tools, like accounting integration and links to spreadsheets and databases, for integrating your business with your online sales efforts. Actinic Developer ($1,495) has all the features of the Business version along with multiple site license creation, additional deployment options, an order processing facility and integration with Dreamweaver for developing your online store.

Actinic is a 'boxed' e-commerce solution. This approach allows you to work completely off-line when developing your online store and then upload the result to a live Web site. One of the strengths of this approach is that the final result can be placed on any Web site since the store is a stand-alone set of Web pages that are accessed by the user. It also means that your ISP has little or nothing to do in the management and maintenance of the store.

Development of the final application, along with changes and/or additions to the online store, is also faster since changes can be made instantly and without the irritating delays usually encountered when interfacing with a server. Anyone who has had to make emergency changes to an e-commerce site via a dial-up connection certainly knows how frustrating this can be.

It's also nice to be able to work with the store at times when a connection to the Internet is not convenient or possible, like on those long trans-continental flights. Being able to make changes and then simply upload the final version makes life a lot simpler.

All of the Actinic packages include just about everything you need to build, design, and manage a good-sized e-business and online store. Most small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) will find Actinic to be plenty adequate to handle their inventory. However, this is probably not the best choice for very large companies with vast inventories and a staff of people in multiple locations working on the same site.

According to Actinic, the Business and Developer versions support over 10,000 products with image and product descriptions, but this is probably stretching the point a bit. The actual number of products will depend upon how extensive the descriptions are and how complex the options for each product. Again, Actinic should be more than sufficient for most SMBs, but it may fall short for larger companies.

Installation of this Windows-based program was a true joy. It went in without a hitch and its no-nonsense, yet intuitive interface had me creating a Web store in a matter of minutes. Actinic works with Windows 95, 98, 2000, ME, XP or NT4 with a minimum of 64-MB of memory (128-MB preferred) and 60-MB of disk space. On the server side, it integrates with Windows NT or UNIX/Linux. The Web site needs to be running Perl 5 or later, the MD5 Perl module, and have a user writeable CGI bin.

Actinic (I looked at the Developer version) offers a variety of excellent features, including the ability to import and export product data via CSV files, and the ability to download encrypted orders onto your local PC and then decrypt them.

One thing I especially liked is a feature called "Site Snapshot" which lets you backup your work, including your database, templates and images, to a single transportable file. This is a great way to move your entire e-commerce site from one PC to another and to keep multiple versions of a site.

If you add to this more than 3,000 different layout, color and design options, support for 12 payment services (including PayPal, WorldPay, Authorize.net, PlanetPayment, InternetSecure), integration with Quick Books, and the ability to develop and maintain multiple sites with one developer license per development PC (with the Developer version), you have an outstanding e-commerce solution that will fill the needs of must businesses.

StoreFront 6.0
StoreFront from LaGarde offers a fully featured, robust environment for the development and management of a large e-commerce system. While you can develop your StoreFront system on a local machine, its true power comes from working in a live environment.

In a local development situation, the Microsoft .NET framework and Access database allows your own PC to function as both server and test environment. Although this can be convenient, is does not provide an accurate picture of what you may face in a real-world situation.

In order to test and run in a live environment, you will need a host running Windows 2000 server, Windows NT Server, or .NET Server. The host must also be running .NET framework, Internet Information Server (IIS) 5.0 or later, SMTP Service, SSL Security, SQL Server 6.5 or later (assuming you are using SQL and not Access), and a compatible email component (CDONT, CDOSYS, ASPEmail, ASPMail, ASPQMail, Jmail, Simplemail, ABMail or the default .NET Mail class).

Developing the e-commerce store interface and design is easy since the StoreFront client tools plug directly into FrontPage and/or Dreamweaver. The client tools are used to design, configure and construct your catalog and product Web pages. The integration of Dreamweaver (a new StoreFront menu is automatically inserted directly into Dreamweaver) means you have almost no limitations on the design and layout of your online store and product descriptions. However, since neither program is included with the package, it also means that you must pay for a copy of either Dreamweaver or FrontPage if you don't already have it.

This program has just about everything you would want for creating and maintaining an e-commerce site. StoreFront includes multiple payment options (electronic checks, DOD, Credit Card and Internet cash) and integration with most major merchant account and gateway service providers, including Wells Fargo Secure Source, PayPal, Authorize.Net, Cardservice International, E-Commerce Exchange, Planet Payment, PSiGate, SecurePay, Verisign, Worldpay Barclays, Bank of America, IONGATE, and CyberSource.

StoreFront also offers a number of nice marketing and promotion options. For example, its integrated Marketplace Manager lets you push selected products into auction sites like eBay, uBid and Yahoo!Auctions and to Dealtime, an online comparison shopping site. E-coupons and special sales let you highlight new or sale products and volume pricing lets you encourage bulk purchases.

It also supports multi-tiered pricing so you can have things like special discounts for frequent shoppers and multi-level distribution systems. I also like the automated drop-shipping feature, which lets you identify specific vendors for specific products allowing for the ordered product to be shipped directly to the customer without the "middleman."

The client software is licensed for installation on up to five machines while the application software (store license) is licensed for one online store, which must be registered with LaGarde. Up to 10 additional store licenses can be purchased from LaGarde.

StoreFront comes in two versions. The SE (Standard Edition) version sells for $479 with additional store licenses priced at $99 each. The AE (Advanced Version), which adds inventory tracking, volume pricing, electronic download delivery, customer specific pricing and automated drop shipment support to the SE package, is available for $979 with additional store licenses priced at $159.

Conclusion
Both Actinic and StoreFront offer all of the features one needs for setting up and maintaining a sophisticated online store. Both have excellent documentation, SSL security, integration with Quick Books (Developer version of Actinic only), the ability to create online coupons, and dynamic linking to external databases.

Actinic is a wonderfully easy program to setup and use. Its off-line approach to development and maintenance means that you can be working on your site almost anytime and anywhere. All you need is your trusty laptop. For most SMBs with limited inventory and a single location for development, this is an excellent choice.

StoreFront 6.1 was also easy to install but, since it offers real-time, online maintenance and updating, it is a bit more complicated to maintain and update. It also requires an ISP with the tools needed to provide the proper operating environment for running the system. Although this is a bit more work, it's well worth it if you have a large inventory. StoreFront helps ease the pain of the setup and running by offering a number of packages which include hosting your Web store on their servers or doing the complete setup with your own ISP.

The decision on which of these excellent products to choose is dependent more on the size of your inventory than on a simple comparison of features. One way or the other, you won't go wrong with either one.

Adapted from ECommerce-Guide.com.

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