Small institution vendor discounts?


This post grows out of a conversation I was having about how scientists purchase supplies and equipment at smaller institutions. It would be helpful if you could leave comments with information and experiences you have. (You can do this anonymously by leaving fields blank.)

Big vendors sell stuff we need. It is business as usual for ThermoFisher and SigmaAldrich to offer huge institutional discount rates.

If you go to their websites, and aren’t logged in with an institutional account, you’ll be flabbergasted at the cost of some very basic supplies! “Wait, I’m supposed to pay a couple hundred dollars for those microfuge tubes???!” [Logs in.] “Oh, no, it’s actually just 38 bucks.”

Of course, the big vendors don’t advertise the discount rates they give to their customers. However, it’s abundantly clear that institutions that spend a jazillion dollars per year on supplies, order equipment on a frequent basis, have the purchasing leverage to negotiate a very deep discount.

If you’re working at Podunk State University or Middle Ofnowhere College, they won’t be falling over themselves to give you that discount. And the rep probably doesn’t even really want to talk to you that much, because they see working with you as the least lucrative part of the job.

If you’re in a small shop, have you had difficulty getting the discount rate that other labs at bigger universities get? How do you deal with this? Do you have any experiences or suggestions for people who are at institutions that are small in size while working with big vendors?

Another way this plays out is the cost of starting a new lab.  For example, Fisher has a New Lab Start-Up Program. The idea is that once you’re set up with buying stuff from them in a new position or with a new grant, then you’ll stick with them for the rest of your career. (Under the same reasoning, middle schoolers get offers for free deodorant.) The first step is to “apply.” I’ve applied to this kind of program twice, by contacting my sales rep, each of the times I’ve set up new lab. Both times, they told me I didn’t qualify because of my institutional affiliation. To which I thought, “eff you.” But to which I played naive and asked why if I had X amount of dollars to set up my lab, Y level of existing and planned federal funding, then I’m curious about why they wouldn’t want any of it. After being annoying enough, they relented and gave me the new lab discount. That was long enough ago that I can’t recall many specifics. It mostly just recall the bad taste in my mouth.

As there are a bunch of people who are setting up new labs in the fall, I’m sure they could benefit from tips about how to make startup go as far as possible!

9 thoughts on “Small institution vendor discounts?

  1. I have had the full range of experiences over several decades and three orders of magnitude of organization size, some of these are undoubtedly due to being in southern Africa and working through local agents. I have been able to negotiate bulk rates when buying in bulk, but buying in bulk has been so rare that I have usually paid list price as I would over the counter. Currently, in a small NGO, research funds are so tight that they can scarcely make a difference to anyone’s bottom line, and so negotiating with a big multinational is probably not going to yield much in the way of discount, especially since I deal through local agents who also have to make a living. That said, I have had thousands of dollars of lab supplies donated by Restek and thousands of pounds worth of software from Spectralworks as support for the project, and this has been critical to progress.

    It just occurred to me that unless the list price is a rip-off, institutional discounts should be acknowledged as funding in publications.

  2. At our small regional pui, we’ve been luckily enough to get large equipment and supply (including disposables) donations from local private labs. I just ordered a piece of analytical equipment and basically had to haggle with the rep like I was dealing with a used car dealer. Finally lied and said their competitor was going to offer me a better deal and they gave me a discount. Nowhere near the discounts I was able to get when I was at an R1.

  3. It’s not just the small schools that have little or no discounts – I am at a medium-sized institution and collaborate with researchers at both PUIs and large state universities. I was recently stunned by the side-by-side comparison of the different prices we pay for the same products. To my mind, the differential price-fixing for different institutions should be brought to the attention of the NSF and NIH, because when it comes to grants, it’s federal dollars at play. I.e., our taxa dollars.

  4. We’ve worked with our Fisher and VWR reps to get reasonable discounts for our institution. However, we’ve also found that simply by shopping around you can find list pricing that is competitive with the big vendor’s discounted pricing. For example we use BioExpress and USA Scientific for a lot of basic lab needs. We’ve also found that we can find a lot of basic equipment on Amazon, and with Prime there are no shipping costs.

    For bigger items (equipment, -80 freezers, centrifuges) we also contact the rep for a price quote, and always ask for quotes from multiple vendors.

  5. I’m at a community college, and we get the discount at Fisher and VWR (for our teaching lab supplies, but it applies to anything we would want to order from them) by having our district negotiate with them. There are 3 CC’s and a couple of centers in the district. Since you’re at a CSU, can’t they get you the discount if they negotiate for all the CSU’s?

  6. It’s the American Way: the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The best is when you can find a food service industry substitute – they’re always cheaper.

  7. Negotiating with vendors is an important skill, like grant writing or calculating p-values. It takes practice.

    I have found these magic words work more often than not: “Give me an X% discount, and I’ll put the PO in today.” “Give me last year’s price, and I’ll put the PO in today.”

    You have to keep relationships woth vendors. Stop by their booth and the conference, talk to your salescritter, talk to his/her boss. Tell them your writing grants to buy their stuff, and if the grant falls flat, tell them the next one you will write. It’s a relationship, like with a scientific collaborator, and you must build it over time.

  8. At least for consumables and cheap equipment (less than ~$2000), my large comprehensive uni seems to have similar discounts to the wealthy private unit where I postdoc’d. The vendor with the best prices is different (Fisher vs VWR). I think that my state has negotiated discounts for the entire university system so that is part of how we get these discounts.

  9. Follow up, though my uni gets seemingly good regular discounts at Fisher, my ‘new lab’ discounts were pretty minimal though I didn’t buy any large pieces of equipment. VWR had more substantial discounts for a new lab / startup.

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