Scientific procurement pains: Why buying research supplies isn’t easy

Scientists probe questions and provide answers—or at least steps and theories toward them—to improve quality of life and understanding of the world. The last thing scientists should worry about while pursuing such grand goals is securing the necessary items for their research in a prompt, reliable, organized, convenient, and cost-effective manner. But too often, scientists must wade (and wait) through frustrating streams of logistical snags, institutional inefficiencies, inefficient communication, inadequate budgets, and conflicting interests that sap time and energy from what truly matters: research. The pain points of scientific procurement are plentiful and exist for many reasons. Here are some common culprits behind the research-supply rigmarole.

  • The researchers who actually need products typically aren’t responsible nor allowed to buy them. Instead, they must communicate their requests—often via spreadsheet, whiteboard, or sticky note—to someone with purchasing authority, who often must then relay each need to a procurement department. There are authorization steps along the way that slow the process—or block it altogether.
  • A specific product is typically carried by multiple suppliers—often at differing prices. A purchaser may get three different prices for the same pipette from three sellers, as well as a fourth quote from their sales rep.
  • Lack of price transparency compounds cost-comparison difficulty, as the same product is often labeled and packaged many various ways and priced differently each time.
  • Purchasers aren’t only paying for research supplies. They’re ultimately funding overhead for sales reps, paper pushing, warehousing, catalog printing, staffing, and inventory—among other costs. For example, distributors must carry minimum-liability insurance to participate in bids to supply labs at institutions.
  • Supplies often aren’t in stock. And some vendors’ systems are better than others at identifying whether certain items are available, and at what price. A buyer then must remember that information—often with yet more tedious spreadsheets and sticky notes.
  • Many distributors and vendors have unreliable availability and pricing information. Poor data management causes discrepancies in displayed information, while a high volume of manual transcription leads to errors.
  • Even once successfully ordered, item delivery is often delayed—thereby slowing research—due to logistical factors. Orders can be delayed, separated, or bumped off trucks altogether based on what is determined hazardous, which chemicals can’t be shipped with certain other products, which supplies can or can’t be shipped overnight, which items must be refrigerated (and extra charges often apply for items shipped with dry ice), and which products legally require specific certification for purchasing. Some items are further restricted, as manufacturers/venders don’t want their products to be misused for illegal and/or dangerous purposes (i.e. illicit drug manufacturing), especially when their brand is on it.
  • Chemicals have unique regulations and their own shipping docks, causing complex shipping logistics and increased overhead. Warehouses can be temporarily shut down due to chemical spills, too, contributing to further delays.
  • The sheer volume of SKUs (stock keeping units) a warehouse must organize introduces further factors that can delay shipping. One seemingly standard product can have countless permutations of sizes, hazards, and customer requirements. Distributors must strategically weigh logistical questions before fulfilling orders, such as “Do we break down the big box into 10-packs or sell the items as individual units?”
  • The scientific procurement industry is generally poor at tracking an item’s journey from manufacturer to distributor/vendor, giving customers very little visibility until products actually ship or arrive. According to industry experts, 60-70% of calls to distributors/vendors are “Where’s my stuff?”
  • Tracking and logistics technology is generally outdated because scientific procurement is traditionally a very conservative industry. Companies don’t want to pay millions of dollars for new systems because their business is a low-margin game. Distributors/vendors fight for about half of the manufacturer’s typical 60% margin.
  • Whereas large, mainstream companies such as Amazon may have the necessary distribution resources, storage facilities, and capital to buy and stock everything they ultimately sell and ship, some of the top names in the scientific-procurement industry are more than 100 years old and lack the modern business infrastructure to optimize fulfillment efficiency—and smaller players in the space simply lack the resources to build such systems.
  • Other nuanced considerations beyond simply buying an ideal product at the best immediate price can play big roles, too. For example, an institution may encourage its purchasers to buy from a certain distributor so its procurement department will receive a year-end credit. And when applying for grants, some of the money must be allocated toward purchasing research items from women- and minority-owned businesses.
  • While no single solution can remedy all of these complex, longtime pain points, Quartzy is the first comprehensive tech play to disrupt lab distribution. Through Quartzy, lab members can collectively build group orders, manage their inventories, and save money on needed items when Quartzy can offer them at lower prices than they typically pay elsewhere. While Quartzy currently suggests items that can be purchased at a cost savings, the Quartzy Catalog is coming soon, allowing users to actively seek and purchase specific items.

Quartzy is the world’s No. 1 lab management platform. We help scientists easily organize orders, manage inventory, and save money. We’re free and always will be. Visit Quartzy.com or reach out at info@quartzy.com.

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Greg Schindler

Greg has a BA from Stanford (English/Football) and MS from Oregon (Journalism). He's our Director of Marketing and Pastries.

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