Buying things is hard

As you may have gathered by my not very oblique references and down right obvious twittering, I have been busy working on a new project over the last few weeks. The project is in its early stages and at this point, I am mostly checking that my data is real before trying to persuade my boss to actually run with it as a project. However, one thing I do need to know is : if I wanted to take it further – how much would it cost in various supplies etc. So yesterday, I took to the various suppliers of lab equipment to track down the long list of things I need to get it up and running.

Over the years, I have had significant experience of lab supply websites. My previous life at Mediwatch meant dealing with a lot of suppliers and I can say that with only a few exceptions, it is always a huge migraine like headache. To give you some idea of the type of site I’m talking about i’ve made a mock up of a generic lab supplies website (see below).

Note: this doesn’t include the inevitable pop-up asking if I’d like to try their new version of the site – which appeared on 5 out of the 8 sites I flicked through while researching this article.

Annotated with cynical sarcasm
Annotated with cynical sarcasm

If I am honest, most sites are actually pretty nice to look at (no spinning GIFs or yellow text on a blue background) and their owners are clearly trying to make them as easy to use as possible. However, there are 5 common annoyances that few seem to have solved.

  1. Obligatory laboratory models – Who are these people dressing in lab coats to be photographed and why are they so interested in whatever coloured beaker they are holding?
  2. Search bars – Like a fool, the first thing I do on a website is try out the internal search system. Sadly, I have been spoilt by the likes of Amazon and e-Bay where the search function will actually show me all the products on offer at that store. Lab suppliers have not caught on to this and frequently use search bars that are so broken they either show nothing or absolutely everything that might have some of the letters I used in the search…
  3. Categories – Having given up on the idea of just searching for what I want, I then turn to my last resort – categories. My best guess for these, is that they are prepared by just one person; so what you end up with is their slightly eclectic groupings – many of which only make sense to them. My real world example of this is when I found a retort stand was under ‘Chemistry>Experimental Equipment’ but not under the broader ‘Lab Equipment’ available on the main page.
  4. Stock levels – A sales person from a large lab equipment supply company once told me that they always have a minimum of 3 of any item on their website. They also explained that 50% of the time they don’t actually have the item but order it in from their suppliers on an ‘as needed’ basis to save on having too much warehouse stock.
  5. Contact form – Why can’t I just e-mail companies?? Contact forms are so impersonal and you are never quite sure if anyone actually got them. [ED: we have a contact form…] But then again, they are very neat and tidy and clearly better.

Now having, by some miracle, found my item (or the nearest equivalent I’m prepared to settle for to avoid more searching…) this is where things have actually improved a lot. In the not too distant past, many sites would make you contact them to get a quote on a £5.00 part – apparently the prices sheet was a closely guarded secret and would not be revealed unless personally authorised by the dark god of sales. Mercifully, they have seen sense on this and now almost all sites will give you the prices up front and in some rare cases they are then even mad enough to ship the part!

I wonder if Amazon have a lab supplies section

1 Comment for “Buying things is hard”

says:

Great article Matthew. Have you tried using Camlab? We have 65 years trading history, and an extensive product range from many suppliers. We clearly display product prices and delivery prices on the website. We also have a Google search bar, live stock information and a technical database blog. Let us know if we can be of any assistance.

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