Mind readers, they're not

Nov 02 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Gah. VENDORS, amirite?

Putting together lists of all the crap I need so vendors can wow me with their amazing New Lab Startup discounts has been the single most surprisingly unpleasant thing about being a new PI. In my brain I was all, SHOPPING FTW, but in reality I want to repeatedly smash my MagicMouse™ into my skull. Here's why:

a) Do you know what the things in your lab are called? I mean, do you REALLY know what they're called? Because the vendors probably call them something different, and it's going to drive you absolutely mad. For example, in my post-doc lab we had this thing, right? It had a flat top and you could put things on like western blot membranes or well plates for IHC, and it would gently swirl them around. We all called this a shaker. So I go to the vendor websites and search for a "shaker," and nothing comes up that looks anything like what our shaker looked like, and it takes me at least half an hour to figure out that what we were calling a shaker is actually an orbital rotator. Just shoot me, please. Half an hour, for one item. One item out of about 5000, because do you even realize how much stuff there is in a lab? So much stuff!  Or, here's another example: what do you call the skinny metal thing that you use to scoop small amounts of drugs or other powdered substances onto a balance? A "powder scooper?" INCORRECT. It is a "spoonulet," FYI.

b) I had hoped that my local vendor reps would be familiar enough with the general needs of a new PI that I could give them a basic list that said things like "bottles" and "graduated cylinders" and "centrifuge tubes" and they'd be able to make some suggestions. Instead, I am fielding emails that say things like, "I don't know what you mean by 'microscope slide staining' and "please tell me the catalog #'s of everything you want." Well, dear rep, I would, if it were in fact possible to find anything at all on your website in a timely fashion.

c) And then when you finally do get the quotes, they're nearly indecipherable. For example, could you guess what this might be? "KIT CYTOTRAP XR RAT BRAI" I cannot, and a look at the product description on the website offers little in the way of clarification. Obviously, there's no picture. I have a guess as to which line item on my list it's meant to be, but the quote was about 3x what I've gotten from others, which makes me think it's the wrong thing. This same vendor also quoted me a $200 timer. Please, sir, why don't you know what I mean when I say "timer?"

What I wish is that there were a big store with all the stuff I need for my lab, and I could just shop by walking around and looking at things and scanning them with one of those guns like you get when you create a wedding registry (helped my sis pick out things at Crate & Barrel and it was AWESOME), rather than having to go nuts searching for things online, copy-pasting catalog #s, and not being able to see what I'm buying. I'm really looking forward to the SfN meeting for this reason (among others), because at least there will be lots of vendors there with lots of items for me to check out in the flesh...and call whatever I damn please!

48 responses so far

  • CoR says:

    Would you like my start-up list in like an ASAP manner?

  • I also wish that every item you bought came with a "If you're buying A, then you'll probably need B, C and D to make it work". It is so annoying when you unpack a bunch of boxes and get ready to finally do an experiment, and then are like "FUCK - if I'm going to run a western I need one of those flat top things that shakes around in circles - and oh yeah, I also need some powdered milk".

  • gerty-z says:

    I totally remember this pain. I ended up sending in a list of the basics (beakers, cylinders, etc) that I got from someone else (you are welcome to mine, if I haven't given it to you yet). All the #s were wrong, but for some reason the rep was able to figure out a substitute #. I also noticed that they had no issue finding product #s for "their" brand to replace some things I found. How convenient. I also sent in some requests that were basically "I need one of those flat shaker thingies", and the rep would send two or three options. Once the rep tried to push back, I just hinted that I would go to the other distributor. That made it go easier.

    WHY do the fucking website suck so bad? Seriously, it's like they don't WANT you to find the shit you need.

    After you figure out what shit is called, BOOKMARK it. Or make a functional spreadsheet or something. In 6-8 months you will want another one and then you will be double-pissed when you have to spend another 30 min figuring it out. again.

    good luck with the "B, C and D" issue. It took me a couple months of working in the lab before I got past (most) of that. I took many trips down the hall to the friendly, well-established lab to borrow shit. In fact, just last week I had to run around to find a required reagent at the last minute.

    Did you know they don't sell Carnation non-fat dry milk anymore?? WTF, that shit was pure gold!

    • Swivels says:

      Hell, I'm lab manager for a well-established lab, and I hate the vendor websites with a fiery passion. They're beyond useless - I really don't understand why vendors would make it hard for me to find what I need and spend money with them, other than by making the website useless they force you to talk to the rep, who can try to upsell. Plus the downside of being in a well-established lab, with a PI who could practically qualify for Hoarders, is that when some doohickey that was purchased when the grad students were still learning to tie their shoelaces finally breaks beyond hope of repair, finding the replacement is a pain in the ass.

      I'll also second the spreadsheet, both for your wishlist, and as you purchase stuff. I've only been in my position for a bit over a year, and having that record has already saved my ass on the consumables that you only need to buy sporadically and can't reliably find on the vendor site.

    • Yael says:

      "Did you know they don't sell Carnation non-fat dry milk anymore?? WTF, that shit was pure gold!"


      My world is falling to pieces. BSA never worked well for us.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    What drives me crazy is that for any reasonably major piece of equipment, the companies treat the price like it's a State Secret.

    "No, you can't just check the website/catalog to find how much it costs. But you can leave a message for our rep. who might or might not get back to you in a week or so..."


  • Dr Becca says:

    I should note that I am spreadsheeting the shit out of this stuff, and luckily, I have an undergrad who comes in once a week to help me do it so I don't lose my mind. We have:

    1) One spreadsheet that's just for things I buy. So far, most of that is from Staples.

    2) One spreadsheet for all the quotes. I have my general list of stuff in the first column, then sets of 4 columns for each vendor: a) name of item on on their website, b) the amount of said item (e.g., case of 500), c) the quote, and d) a link to the item's page on the website. There's a column for notes, and the whole thing is color coded. Yay!

    • CoR says:

      This might be a pain, might be helpful, but I made a database of everything I've ordered in FileMaker (Access if your a Windows freak). This has vendor, number, cost, etc, and is easily searchable and will make spreadsheets if needed to send to vendors. It's easy to lose the exact thing that finally made all the stuff work, so I database the things and back that shit up!

    • CoR says:

      PS again. You might be doing this already, but I found it helpful to play vendors off one another. You need to be a leetle careful doing this...but I managed to save a ton by sending a big list of Fisher items and the quote to VWR -- the VWR rep wanted to take hold of my area and came up with a list of the same stuff, much lower cost....

  • Andrea says:

    At my last postdoc, as I was winding up projects before moving to a faculty position, I had an undergraduate student create an excel spreadsheet with all of the orders from the lab from the past several years. It didn't help with big purchases, of course, but saved me time when I needed to stock routine supplies. Thought I'd mention it for any readers in a similar situation - the spreadsheets did save me time, and helped me identify vendors. It was especially useful for the odd pieces from odd sources, like Newark Electronics.

  • geeka says:

    I'm thinking someone needs to come up with a phone QR code reader that you can scan something and it pops up on the website.

    Also, we always called them orbital shakers because the 'shakers' were for bacteria. (the 2 tiered one we called the hula dancer b/c we had one glued to it so it'd dance)

  • Laura says:

    I have actually heard the orbital rotators called "bellydancers," which is pretty awesome.

    The best/worst thing ever from my days as a lab manager was trying to figure out what the fuck you call those little plastic things that you put on the top of eppendorf tubes before you boil them, to keep the lids from exploding open. Because in my lab, we just called them "the little hats." ("Microcentrifuge tube lid lock clips," FYI.)

    • gerty-z says:

      THANK YOU!!! I have been trying to figure out what those are called for a fucking year! I finally just "borrowed" some from the lab down the hall, but now I can get my own if they ever take them back.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    This is where having someone sit down with you and work through all the little shit is a huge help.

  • BeckyPhD says:

    My first duty as a postdoc was to stock an empty lab. My PI had relocated from a different institute and could only bring a couple small boxes of cell lines and antibodies with him. So he hired me and told me to buy things, nevermind the fact that I was moving from a yeast molecular biology lab as a grad student to a cancer lab as a postdoc and wasn't really sure what we would need. (I ended up buying a lot of things we really didn't need due to the lack of guidance, but that is an entirely different issue.)

    I found that the best thing I could do was take the giant, physical paper catalog from one of the big vendors and flip through it page by page making a list. That saved me from having to figure out what all the things are called. I had one incredibly helpful vendor who came and talked to me several times a week and could get quotes to me in a matter of minutes. The institute's preferred vendor, however, wouldn't talk to me or even bring a catalog ("it's all on our webpage") and then wondered why we didn't buy anything from them.

    • labbrat says:

      I don't know if they even make the big physical book catalogs anymore, but this is also what we looked at when I helped a former PI set up her new lab. The nice thing is that most of the items in the catalog actually had pictures so you could tell what they were (what a concept!). It took about 1-2 hours to go through the whole thing, but we got all the product numbers at once and also noticed a lot of stuff we might have forgotten about otherwise (like the little floaty things you put your eppendorf tubes in when you're putting them in the waterbath...or the weighted rings to put on top of glass bottles in the waterbath - stuff like that).

      • BeckyPhD says:

        I'm not sure they do still make them, but I've found that there are usually old versions lying around most labs. If I had to do it again, I'd go that route just to get a list of stuff and names and catalog numbers. Even if it is outdated, it'd be much easier to search for things if you know what they used to call it.

        • MRW says:

          Many vendors do. I regularly use VWR's instead of trying to find things on their website.

          • Laura says:

            Even if they don't print them (which they must - the vendors themselves need the pictures!), if you have a vendor who has been around for a while they probably have some old ones hanging around their offices/houses. My dad works for Fisher and has a smattering of copies from the past - seeing 80's copies always makes me a little nostalgic for my dad's home office.

      • gerty-z says:

        they still make them. I did this some, too. so much more useful than the website. but doesn't help if you know you need one of those little flat thingies and don't happen to run across it in the catalog.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    ALSO, can you believe how much those hula dancers, orbital rotators, what-have-you's actually cost???!!! Holy crap!

  • becca says:

    Someday, google will perfect imagine search technology. You will go through a lab with a camera phone, take pictures, it will search the internet for multiple catalogs and give you a list, organized by price.
    In the interm, if EVERY PI is making such a spreadsheet, it should be fairly easy to get a half dozen templates from labs like yours.

  • tideliar says:

    If you can find a vendor-rep who has a minimum level of competency (ours is simply beyond fucking awesome) just buy EVERYTHING from them. The minimal amount you win/lose in not shopping around is more than compensated by saved salary in not wasting hundreds of hours looking for shit.

    ...#wheniwasatech we had to use paper catalogs! PAPER! Do you know how many different types of tubing an electrophysiology lab needs? Fucking loads. Do you know how many types Cole Palmer sells? An exponential fuckton. HOURS! spent flipping through catalogs...


  • anon says:

    I've heard from multiple sources that biomed companies routinely replace lab items whether they are needed or not. Not sure if this is still true, given the rough fiscal climate these days. Anyway, if you know someone who works on the "inside", this might be a way to get some freebies. I had the privilege of attending one of these yard sales, and it was epic. Just like the lab shop you dream about, except it was all free. I was working with a teeny weeny startup package, so it really helped. Some of the stuff is old, but I don't care. It's not a fashion show. As long as the shit works, we're happy.

  • chall says:

    Ah, "spoonulet" is the name 🙂 I would have never guessed it.

    I still don't understand why there aren't more photos/pictures on the vendor websites. I mean, a picture is worth a 1000 words, right? Not to mention that it is SO much easier discussing with a vendor on the phone while looking at a photo saying "I want that lever to the right to be shorter" etc...

    Good luck with not going crazy with those spreadsheets!

  • Zen Faulkes says:



    • Dr Becca says:

      Those are two different things, Zen. The Scoopula is the thing that's curved all the way down. The Spoonulet has a very skinny base, and then a round scoopy part at the end.

  • gerty-z says:

    another thing to be aware of: those pictures that are there can LIE. I ordered a "jumbo" doohickey and "large" thingamajig. When they showed up to lab everything was the size of a fucking smurf. It was like my order went through a shrinker at the fedex office.

    • CoR says:

      Ha ha ha this happened to me too -- I ordered what I thought was the moderate sized thing and ended up with an etsy beetsy thing that I cannot even hazard a guess how it could be helpful.
      I sent the thing back, and the fuckers charged me a re-stocking fee! Grr.

  • Pascale says:

    Ah memories.
    I did my last lab start-up when printed catalogs were still the gold standard. At least I could go to the appropriate section of the dead tree edition, browse till I found a photo of what I wanted, and then look around the web for competing items with the same name.
    Despite accessing it with a "browser," web catalogs are a bitch to browse.

  • darchole says:

    Fisher still has a print catalog, I just ordered one this year.

    Ordering it even worse when you have to go through an internal process. We have a department, 'procurement' that runs a website where we have to order almost everything through. And then there's the 'preferred' vendors, where the website directs you to their website, you order things from the vendor's website and then you get directed back to the unversity ordering page to finish checkout. And that's not even taking into consideration the accounting system either.

  • @fiainros says:

    The best part of reading this is going through the comments and reading what us scientists call the stuff in our labs - very observationally accurate names.

  • DJMH says:

    I only knew scoopula, which always puts me in the mind of Count Chocula, and "why are all the little spoon dealies for weighing out shit in the sink, AGAIN?"

    So thanks for the education.

  • anonymous says:

    A friend who is just starting up her lab got a bunch of stuff from a biotech company that was going out of business. She basically walked through their labs and put stickers on everything she wanted, and they shipped everything to her new place.

    • Dr Becca says:

      Wow!!! I wonder if there's a listserv or something I can get on to find out about these things?

      I did get to pillage a lab that had recently moved--no major scores, but a bunch of glassware, 150 24-well plates, and about 5000 serological pipets easily saved me a few hundred bucks. Every little bit helps!

  • Namnezia says:

    1. What CoR said, get your quote from one vendor, have a second vendor find the equivalent items and beat the quote. Then show that to the first vendor and so on until the price stops dropping. Then ask for your new lab discount.

    2. What CoR also said: YES! Build a Filemaker pro database, that way it also makes reordering easy and keeping trap of stuff.

    3. I will be happy to send you my startup list (even for the fancy stuff, since it looks like we might use similar techniques). And also my Filemaker template.

    • Dr Becca says:

      OK, so here's a question about getting the bidding wars going: Do I make them fight about EVERY little thing? Do I say, hey Fisher, VWR is offering 50 ml conicals at $70/case, while you quoted me $73? Or do I only do this for the bigger equipment-y things?

      • JaySeeDub says:

        Always let vendors and suppliers fight to give you the lowest price on everything. It's in their best interest that you buy everything from them, since repeat business is their bread and butter. You may as well go as low as you can.

      • Namnezia says:

        I just did the whole quote. They send you a list with everything you want and the price. I just haggled for the total price, not each line item.

        This definitely also works for expensive equipment, the more expensive it is the more inflated the prices is, thus the bigger potential for discounts.

        Even if there is only one sole vendor, you can still ask for a discount. Or for refurbished models. We bought a $30K camera for about half, it was a demo model that was used for a course. It came with full warranty and service.

  • Anonymous Industry Mouse says:

    Using a Pseudonym for this one because I do work for a vendor, albeit not any of the ones you've mentioned and our sales reps are very firmly informed that customers should be responded to as quickly as humanly possible. We don't want you to wait a week for an answer. It's true that websites can be more or less helpful, and less helpful often translates to less customers. One issue is that prices are often different in different places for various reasons, so putting the prices on the website can occasionally not be a good idea from a business perspective, though from a customer perspective, I would and do want to go to a website and type in any search term and get a product and price. The other issue is that internal databases often only have a set number of characters to explain a product. This isn't an excuse, but it does somewhat explain why you end up with KIT CYTOTRAP XR RAT BRAI on your quote.

    If you don't mind, I'm passing this link to our sales staff to say, "Okay, people, please never do anything that makes customers write posts like THIS."

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