If you only had an hour to check out the hottest new CD player, pick up a few kitchen cleaning products, and buy a pair of jeans, chances are you'd probably head to the nearest mall or shopping center. ... Going shopping is relatively painless when everything you need can be found above, below, and around a food court. Similarly, wouldn't it be great if everything you ever needed to set up and run your lab could be found in one convenient location? Unfortunately, however, no one's building any scientific shopping malls. Not out of bricks and mortar, anyway.

But they are building them out of bits and bytes! So, although there might not be a "Sci-Mart" across the street from campus, a number of new online malls are offering scientists the next best thing ... or perhaps the best thing: A service that enables you to shop around a variety of vendors and suppliers and compare prices for almost any life science product you desire--all from the comfort of your desk, or wherever you keep your laptop.

Search and Compare

Billed as "the consumer guide for the life scientist," Biocompare--which is a year and a half old--aims to put new investigators in touch with companies eager to bid for their time and money. Biocompare officials recognize that flipping through last year's catalogs or scurrying down the corridor to scribble down the latest "buy 1 get 1 free" deal pinned to the notice board isn't a tremendously good use of your time. A search of Biocompare's Web site (it's free and you don't have to register) for any life science product returns a spreadsheet that lists and compares all the criteria you could possibly want to know about products supplied by different companies. It's a very efficient way to get a sense of what's on offer. The site is "hot," logging some 60,000 hits a day and growing by 25% every week, according to Biocompare's Teola Young, vice president for business development.

SciQuest.com is a similar venture--an online package that also allows users to compare products across vendors. It provides useful information on reagents and supplier information. "I like the site and the ease at which you can find what you are looking for," says Daniel McCurdy, research associate at the University of Vermont, of SciQuest's capabilities. "It does a pretty good job of categorizing reagents and products to help you narrow down or refine your search."

What Do You Think?

If you'd prefer to read what your colleagues think about a product or reagent, you might find Biowire.com useful. This service claims to have over 12,500 reviews of products written by users like you, who give their 2 cents about products they use. The idea appears to hit a collective nerve: Biowire states that they get "several hundred" new reviews added "each day." It provides catalog numbers and company details, as well as some background information on the person posting the review. Biocompare also includes lengthy reviews that give you "the good," "the bad," and "the bottom line" of scrutinized products.

McCurdy recommends taking a few minutes to check out such online services before purchasing reagents the way you're usually accustomed to doing, just in case you miss out on a special offer. "It's worthwhile, since you can search and check out prices all within a few minutes and, best of all ... it doesn't take up any shelf space!"

New Lab Discounts

His sentiments echo those interwoven in the mission statements of many start-up companies: "Our goal is to give scientists back the time they need in which to facilitate discovery," says Biocompare's Young. Reducing the time scientists spend searching for products is the key aim for companies like hers. Indeed, Young came up with the idea to create the New Lab Discount Service--which was launched last week--to give vendors an opportunity to showcase their wares to needy investigators. Researchers fill out an online form that is then forwarded to life science companies and distributors.

"Everyone here thinks it's a great idea ... for scientists to be aware of discounts and for us to get new customers," enthuses Michelle Lozito, marketing coordinator at Eppendorf, of Biocompare's lab discount initiative.

Established companies are getting in on the act, too. For example, Fisher Scientific, the distributor of a variety of products from different vendors, has compiled a list of special offers offered by its clients through its Lab Start-Up Program--a "goodwill" effort started 3 years ago by Maria Berdusco, marketing manager of Fisher's life science division. "We started this service in response to our customers," explains Berdusco, who reveals that Fisher has helped to establish "several thousand" laboratories around the country.

Dollar for Dollar

There's nothing better than being aware of sound deals or reasonable compromises on bulk orders to make you feel things are going your way. Some vendors match your purchases dollar for dollar: You spend $5000 on reagents, they'll reimburse you entirely. You buy a benchtop centrifuge, they'll give you the accessories, and so on. And you don't necessarily have to purchase products through online companies to qualify: Making appointments directly with sales reps--or customer service--are other ways to nail down those deals.

But don't blindly agree to purchase goodies without first reading the fine print: You may only be eligible for only one discount, or you may have a relatively short period of time in which to claim reimbursements. And in some instances, the refunding process may be so convoluted that faxing receipts to different companies across different parts of the country might dampen your enthusiasm.

And some scientists question why both Biocompare's and Fisher Scientific's online application forms require investigators to reveal their source of funding. Young explains that many life science companies have been bitten by researchers pretending to be first-time investigators so that they can qualify for "new lab" discounts. This entry requirement is supposed to assure companies that you are truly in the process of setting up your lab. In fact, it's not only scientists that try to pull a fast one: Young reveals that the development of Biocompare is making such good progress that competitors have tried all manner of schemes to get inside information. "People pretend to come here for job interviews or call us up saying they are doing research for what turns out to be a nonexistent magazine ... just so they can find out how we do the things we do," she says.

Sales Reps Are Your Lifelink

Young contacts investigators to let them know their forms have been forwarded to key vendor personnel and management, who then (in theory) go on to put sales reps in touch with the new scientist. Together, representatives and researchers work out deals and what's best for the researcher. "It's not good enough to just have a 1-800 number," says Young. "You need to get to know your sales reps and work with them to figure out the benefits and drawbacks" of items you need. Your new department surely has accounts with vendors who are only too willing to work with you to equip your lab. Find out who holds this information and start to make appointments.

So, if you want to save yourself some time and stretch those fast-disappearing start-up funds as far as you possibly can, check out the online services and new lab discount initiatives offered by new and more established companies. Scientific shopping is rapidly becoming as easy as waltzing down to your local mall--even if there isn't a food court nearby!