The Price is Ri…HIGH

August 16th, 2010

Chemical Ed with GogglesI couldn’t care less what brand of disposable gloves or paper towels I use, so when ordering lab supplies, I try to shop around and not waste money.  The problem, of course, is that the vendors make it difficult to find the best deal because they charge different prices to different people.

Take the brand of gloves I typically use: EvolutionOne latex, size XL.  When possible, I order items through VWR because they have a deal with Caltech that waives shipping costs.  Harvard had the same deal.  VWR also operates a stockroom on campus, which means we needn’t bother filling out a requisition form and waiting.

On their Web site, VWR charges  $19.97 for a box of 100 gloves, which only drops to $18.30/box if you order a case of 10 boxes.  Now, if you call in the same order from Caltech (or go down to their stockroom), you pay only $7.25/box.  That’s a massive difference—we’re talking about being able to reduce costs by over 50%.  It seems that’s the way it is for most of the stuff they sell, and I’ve found there’s no way of knowing what the “final” price is unless you call and ask.

There has to be some reason that VWR is willing to do business this way, because the system:  (i) is a pain in the butt, and (ii) could scare away potential customers with the inflated prices on the Web site.  I guess there might be some sort of value in large institutional clients getting to feel like they are the beneficiaries of deep discounts.  Also, there are probably some customers who don’t know any better and are willing to pay the inflated prices.

One example of such a customer: me.  (Well, my mom, but only as my proxy.)  I was gouged on the very first thing I ever ordered from Aldrich: a Molecular Visions model kit.  You probably know this kit as “the one in the green box”.  As a youngster in high school, I wanted to get a model set of my own and found this one in my teacher’s Aldrich catalog.  I had my mom call up to place the order, and at first, they wouldn’t even sell to us because we were just some people off the street.  We had to point out that the item wasn’t a chemical, at which point, they relented so long as we had it shipped to the high school lab.  We paid around $50+shipping.

Of course, I didn’t know how much we overpaid until I later found them on sale at my college bookstore for ~$15.  Nowadays, you can get one of these model sets off eBay for less than $5 + shipping.  Of course, some things never change…Aldrich still sells the same kits, and their Web site lists the price as $59.80 (Item #Z108006-1KT).

Would I have rather paid $5 for the kit back in ’97?  Certainly, but I probably did get my money’s worth out of it.  The kit travelled with me from high school to college to grad school, and made several appearances at science fairs in DC, Virginia, and Texas:


PJB at ISEF with Poster and Model Kit, 1998

That’s a model of trimethyltetradecylammonium bromide, and as a kid in high school with one of those tri-fold posterboards, I thought it looked pretty cool sitting on a desk.  Good times.

9 Responses to “The Price is Ri…HIGH”

  1. John Spevacek Says:

    The factor that you are overlooking is the value of your time. Being a near worthless postdoc[*], your time is probably not worth a whole lot on an hourly basis, so saving a few bucks could be justified. But when you become a highly paid professional, the $12 you saved would not be worth the time you spent on it.

    [*] Welcome back. You’re here a week and already people are insulting you! I also realize that I made more than 1 assumption in that clause.

  2. Paul Says:

    “worthless postdoc”…have you been talking to my advisor?

    Seriously, I agree with your point on matters where it is a one-off purchase. The point also holds when you can just order a chemical, without having to make it from cheap stuff or ancient bottles in your lab’s stockroom. But for regular purchases like gloves and other disposal items, I think it makes sense to do some leg work in the beginning. Also, stocking these items happens to be my group job, so the cost savings (or lack thereof) get multiplied.

  3. Emily Says:

    Depending on your institution/department you might be able to get a website account with VWR that reflects the actual price you’ll pay. Our department’s administrative person gave me a similar account with Fisher (our university’s go-to company) and it’s very nice to be able to look up the actual price!

  4. Liberal Chemist Says:

    Frugality and efficiency are diverging lines that cross over very close to the origin. When I was at a very poorly funded chemistry department in England the role of the storekeeper was not to order a bottle of potassium cranide when I needed one but to tell me where the departmental bottle was located and then I would have to wander around the building looking for the bottle. As a whole the chemistry department was very frugal but I read a lot of short, negative PhD theses (three years of work, no publications and no positive results) when I was there. The other thing is that when you make your own starting materials you are always obsessing about purity, where if you buy a starting material you worry about purity only when it becomes a problem. First thing I did when I got home to Canada was submit a honking big Aldrich order (screw the mark-up let’s get some chemistry done).

  5. Yonemoto Says:

    Does anyone remember the famous chemist who published a structural revision in high school? I was looking through the archives of the old chembark to try to find that post but I couldn’t find it – and then I found this!

  6. Paul Says:

    Look at Andrew Streitweiser’s first publication. It was a JACS comm submitted from the address of his parents’ house.

  7. Yonemoto Says:


  8. James Says:

    Count me among those who also got hosed. I ordered the same kit from Aldrich back in ’00 for $50, because I was desperate for a kit at the time. However, it was/is very well-loved, with lots of broken-off black and blue ends to show for it. I scooped up a second kit a few years later when I saw one for $15.

  9. William Penrose Says:

    Where I taught, the labs were charged close to catalog prices. The discount was rebated to the accounting office and entered the general fund of the University. I only found this out one year when one of the funding agencies did an audit and insisted that the rebate be distributed back to the research accounts.

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