Dear Lab supply companies.

Over my decade in science and research I have had call to order things from many of you. Your supplies are the almost literal life blood of my experiments… if the word ‘literal’ didn’t mean something else. I have over the years funnelled tens of thousands of monies into you to a varying degree and I’m a fairly frugal researcher. And I’m not alone, every lab in the country pours huge chunks of their research money in to your online stores in exchange for weirdly shaped glassware.

So given your status as a vital requirement in the research process and the veritable wagons of cash flowing in every day, WHY ARE YOUR WEBSITES SO TERRIBLE?!

Have you seen Amazon, e-bay or Alibaba? They are all excellent online sites – world renowned, in fact. I ask because many of you seem to have ignored all the vitally useful user features that have made those brands such world class stores, and gone with your own slightly misguided versions.

First off, where are the prices?! Are they secret? Do I need special clearance to know them? Why are they not displayed next to the thing I want to buy? Literally every other type of online store in the world prominently displays their prices next to the item you are looking at. Making me contact you to find out the price of a 10p spatula does not make me like you or make me want to order more things from you. What it does do is waste a chunk of my day waiting for you to reply and then finding out how to un-list myself from whatever mailing lists you’ve just signed me up for.

Price gauntlet

Secondly, why do you have a search bar even though it is clearly programmed with the intelligence of a particularly stupid hamster. One site (that I won’t name) would only show me items if I perfectly matched the name of the item, which as I was ordering “5,10,15,20-Tetrakis-(4-sulfonatophenyl)-21,23H-porphyrin” was more than a little frustrating. Given that many of your catalogues have a vast number of products, I can’t help but think that being able to find them should be a priority. It’s all the more baffling as putting a Google powered search bar in your site is free and pretty simple to set up.

Catagory mapSpeaking of finding things… that brings me neatly on to categories. Given that the search bar has failed, our last hope of finding items is going through the categories. A good analogy is that instead of driving a car that won’t start, I get on a bike that goes in random directions. For example, I needed a retort stand a while back – like some kind of fool I thought it would be under “Lab Equipment” with the other stands. Sadly I was mistaken, it was under “Experimental Equipment” – something I only realised after browsing slowly though all 50 sub-categories. My theory at the time was that the site was sentient and was trying to break me.

I could go on but my blood pressure medication is only so effective and if I have to look at any more sites while I research this, I may possibly explode in frustrated rage. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the simple work of Amazon et al but to me it seems mad to not do everything you can to make it as easy as possible to order from your business. Do you not want money? I have money (sometimes) and want to give it to you in exchange for things to do my job. Please let me!

Yours bitterly,

Matthew Partridge

Hi there!

Sign up to receive awesome cartoony content in your inbox, every month.

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.


Susan Massie · 17 February 2015 at 09:17

Hi Matthew, really enjoyed your blog post. I am the Marketing Manager for an international laboratories supply company. We supply research and analysis scientists with Chromatography consumables, our core products are Certified Reference Standards and Chromatography supplies (Columns, Syringes, Filters etc). We do supply general laboratory equipment when asked. One of my main challenges is populating and managing our website – an onerous task when we have access to over 1 million products (seriously).

Input from scientists about how they use our website and what they would like to see there is very valuable information to us – so thanks for the insight, we’ll take a look at your suggestions and will try our best to improve. If you have time to visit our website and give me some feedback that would be great.

If there’s any further information I can send you about our company just let me know, you can email me at sue [at] greyhoundchrom [dot] com

Best regards, Sue Massie

Mark Wardle · 17 February 2015 at 09:29

Great article Matthew. As a supplier, I have been in this industry for 35 years and seen the change from the day when sales people were actually welcomed as specialists, to the present day where sadly it is harder and harder to even get through the door of many laboratories, leave alone to sell anything as mundane as consumables. After all, they are all the same are they not? Until they cause a problem that is.

The challenge we face as suppliers is to engage you, the user, provide education and knowledge, but at the same time to try and do that in the few seconds that you will spend on our website, assuming you can find it in the first place.

The problems you describe are quite true for many sites, but many smaller companies are fully aware of them and strive very hard to make it easy to find what you need and provide pricing and a quick check-out and delivery process. You are perhaps fortunate that you work in the University sector which allows you to purchase form companies, but all too often the users who find those same companies are unable to purchase from them because of agreements with the larger suppliers, many of whom have the poor websites that you describe.

And therein lies the problem as I see it. In order to get found and recognised in the first place requires a huge amount of investment, not just in the web technology, but in advertising and marketing online, a real problem for smaller companies. Google will only organically recognise those sites who they consider to have relevant content and to get that content requires lots of lots of pages of information to demonstrate to Google that you know what you are talking about. Those very pages which mask the job of the website, which is to make it easy for you to find what you need and buy it.

Having personally programmed websites since the very beginning of the internet (makes me sound old!) the problems you describe with searching for technical products are very real. The development of technology has seen it easier and easier to create webshops, blogs and all sorts of fancy websites, but the plugins to perform searches and manage complex data are still poor in my opinion. The nature of what we sell and use in this industry is extremely technical compared with most web products and that actually makes it quite hard, but not impossible, to program a really usable website.

That is absolutely no excuse for many companies I agree, but my message here in defence of the suppliers, is to look around especially beyond the first page of Google. There are actually a lot of really good companies out there, many of whom have good websites, and many of whom will provide a much faster, more personal and better service than the big companies. Our world seems to have been consumed by huge multi-national companies who purport to offer you a better deal, but perhaps looking beyond the headline price at the whole purchasing experience is a truer reflection of the value of a supplier.

Mark Wardle.

Nick P. · 25 March 2015 at 06:32

My favorite is how they charge you to place an order. You literally have to pay to buy from them. Wanna buy a timer for $20? That’ll be $20, plus the $35 processing fee.

john · 4 December 2015 at 22:56

Hey. Thanks for sharing your views on lab supply companies and the level of services they provide online. I have been a victim of such lab supplies company but I found out in my first order that the company is new and I am going to lose my money for the product I am buying. I highly recommend amazon and gazelle for electronics equipment and lab equipment buying because you get perfect rate and perfect price in a competition. I am also buying some lab equipment from used line: which is also providing a secure buy/sell service.

Top 5 Errant Science posts of 2015 – ErrantScience · 8 February 2019 at 22:19

[…] 3. An Open letter to lab supply companies […]

Leave a Reply