Tech Shortcuts for Life

The Secret Stores Where Tech Pros Shop

And you can shop there too

Julia Moberg: Photo Illustration: Save As/Medium

Tech Shortcuts for Life is a weekly column from Thomas Smith on Debugger exploring the apps, automation, gadgets, and other tech tricks that can make your life more efficient.

Amazon sells basically everything. A quick look through my recent order history reveals a bizarre tapestry of seemingly unrelated purchases: lightbulbs, pound cake, children’s clothing, chicken feed, an industrial CO2 meter, and a trash can, to name just a few items. It’s the modern general store.

But while Amazon excels in breadth, the site is often sorely lacking in depth. Jeff Bezos and his crew can get you a container of spinach in two hours if you live in a big city. But if you want a super-specific machine part, printed circuit board components, an obscure camera accessory, or myriad other specialized items, they’re hard or impossible to find on generalist sites like Amazon.

That’s why when many tech pros need these hyper-specific items, they turn to a small collection of specialist marketplaces that most consumers have never heard of. These sites provide an incredibly broad range of hyper-specific products tailored for professionals. Some have legendary service. Some have absurdly large inventories. Some even appear to have superpowers.

The best news? You can shop at all of them. Here are four secret marketplaces where tech pros buy their stuff — and where you can shop, too.

McMaster-Carr

Unless you’re a mechanical engineer — or, like me, you’ve spent way too much time prototyping robots — you’ve probably never heard of McMaster-Carr. Its name sounds more like an accounting firm than a company serving the tech sector. But for many tech professionals, McMaster is an absolutely essential source for the materials they need to get their jobs done.

McMaster (as everyone in the know calls it) is an online hardware store. While a consumer-oriented hardware store sells some hardware, McMaster sells all of the hardware. According to an explainer from Hackaday, McMaster stocks over 550,000 individual hardware components. A typical Lowes stocks around 35,000 items — and that includes seasonal items, grills, plants, patio furniture, and lots of other non-hardware stuff. Conservatively, McMaster has about 40 times more hardware items in stock than a Lowes or Home Depot.

That absurd inventory means McMaster doesn’t just offer such things as a “metal screw.” It offers a “brass-slotted, decorative rounded head screw for wood, partially threaded, with 26 threads per inch” in 35 different sizes — as well as tens of thousands of other hardware components which vary from each other in minute ways. Those tiny differences are critical; they allow an engineer working on a prototype to dial in the exact part that they need by choosing the perfect size, strength, material, and more.

McMaster also offers astounding service. Their shipping department appears to run on dark magic. The company is legendary for delivering parts either the same day or one day later, even with economy shipping. I once added a bunch of items to my McMaster cart, pressed “Buy”, and immediately realized I bought the wrong thing. I called McMaster (yes, you can call them, and they’ll pick up), explained the issue, and asked if I could modify the order. The representative explained that unfortunately, I couldn’t — my order had already shipped out.

Evidently, McMaster had begun packing it while I was still adding items to my cart, in the hopes that I would eventually follow through and buy them. When I did, they sealed the box and shipped it out less than five minutes later. It was fine, though, because McMaster’s returns department is also legendary. I was once moving to a new shop space and had a desk drawer full of random parts I had bought from McMaster over the years. I threw them all in a box and sent them back to the company. A few days later, I received an itemized list of what I had returned as well as a full refund on each item.

This speed and flexibility are critical for engineers working on a prototype. When you’re building a new tech product, you often have to try out multiple parts to see which one works best. Getting parts sooner speeds up the process of iterating on various designs. And knowing you can return parts that don’t work for your design lowers the overall cost of R&D.

How does McMaster manage its lightning-fast service? As Hackaday points out, they charge much more than other stores — sometimes up to twice as much. That makes McMaster an expensive option for everyday hardware purchases. But if you absolutely need a titanium, self-tapping sheet metal screw for your next DIY project tomorrow, McMaster is the place to go.

Digikey

If you’ve ever needed to buy a GPU or a processor for a homebuilt PC, you probably turned to Best Buy or Newegg. But if you ever needed to buy the components which are used to make a GPU or processor, then you may well have shopped at Digikey.

Digikey sells electronic components — the tiny computer chips, LEDs, logic gates, and other gizmos which make modern tech devices function. On the company’s website, electrical engineers, roboticists, and makers can find nearly any component that they need to build the next big tech thing. Want 1,118 options for an electronic relay or 675,000 for a ceramic capacitor? Digikey has you covered.

I’ve shopped at Digikey when I was building custom printed circuit boards while working on a hardware startup. You can purchase a few components if you’re prototyping something, but you can also scale up your order as you enter production, purchasing thousands of a component at a time with discounts that scale based on purchase quantity. That makes Digikey popular with makers and with seasoned professionals sourcing parts for widely distributed products.

Ironically, for a company that sells high-tech components, Digkey’s website looks like it was designed in 1995 (likely because parts of it were), and it is nearly unshoppable. You have to know exactly what you’re looking for, and even then the site’s interface can be tough to use. If I need a specific component, I’ll often go to a maker-friendly site like Sparkfun or Adafruit first. These sites sell a more limited, curated selection of components and provide tutorials and examples for how to use them. Once I’ve purchased and tested a component from either site, I’ll then enter its model number into Digikey and buy it in higher quantities there.

Despite its interface challenges, using Digikey feels a bit magical, like adding skills to your character in a MMORPG. Does your prototype device need the ability to play MP3 files? Sense colored light? Recognize voices? Digikey sells specific integrated circuits for all those functions. Especially with the demise of Fry’s Electronics and RadioShack, the site has become a go-to for electrical engineers and hobbyists alike.

B&H Photo

Companies like Amazon and Best Buy have a decent selection of consumer-level cameras and audio-visual equipment. If you want an entry-level DSLR, you can probably safely buy it on a generalist site. But if you’ve seeking professional gear, these marketplaces can fall flat. Pro-quality cameras are expensive. My primary camera, the Leica Q, sells for around $5,000. And it’s considered a mid-range professional camera in terms of price.

Generalists like Amazon don’t want to stock lots of high-value professional gear. It means tying up money in inventory for products which will likely rarely sell on their platform and could be lost or damaged in their massive warehouses. Instead, most generalist marketplaces bring in third-party sellers to hawk this kind of gear. That introduces all kinds of challenges with authenticity and quality. Would you drop $5,000 on a camera from an unknown third-party seller with a 64% positive rating? Probably not.

That’s why photography and audio-visual professionals often turn to specialized marketplaces to buy their gear. One of the best is B&H Photo. B&H has been around since 1973. I often talk to older photographers who remember wandering the aisles of the company’s cavernous stores in New York City when they were first getting started in the field. You can still browse at B&H in person, but the company now has a robust e-commerce site (as well as a paper catalog/magazine which remains popular with pros).

B&H sells high-end photographic gear, as well as networking hardware, projectors, scanners, microphones, lighting, and everything else an audio-visual pro or photographer needs. Because they specialize in photo and video gear, B&H stocks a wide variety of specialized camera bodies, lenses, video mixers, rigging kits, and much else. I use them for high-end photo gear and any time I need to purchase scanning equipment.

B&H is also my go-to source for analog film gear. Analog film needs to be coddled in order to perform correctly. It must be stored within a narrow temperature range and must be sold well in advance of its expiration date. Amazon’s massive warehouses are perfect for housing and delivering toasters, keyboards, and other sundries. But they’re often not the best environment for sensitive products like film. Because B&H specializes in analog film and sells a large amount of it, pros shopping with the company know the film they buy there will be fresh and will have been handled properly.

B&H offers a level of hands-on service which is lacking at big retailers, too. The company remains family-owned and trains its salespeople extensively. As a Jewish-owned business, B&H closes its online store for 24 hours each week for Shabbat, a day of rest and relaxation. If you visit the company’s site on a Saturday, you won’t be able to buy anything. B&H also hires industry pros to write detailed buying guides and extensive tutorials on much of its gear. The company’s paper catalog reads like a combination of a sales brochure and a photography journal, which is one of the reasons pros love it.

B&H is a great source if you need high-end audio-visual gear. But it’s also a great place to get your next GoPro, consumer point-and-shoot camera, or that flatbed scanner for digitizing your family’s photos.

Uline

Have you ever wandered around a public park or a commercial facility and wondered where all its random stuff comes from? If you needed to buy an outdoor trash can, one of those blinky lights they put at construction sites, a metal picnic table, or a pallet truck, where would you look?

If you’re a logistics or procurement professional, you’d probably look to Uline. Uline is a major retailer for industrial products and facility equipment. They’ll gladly sell you that park-quality trash can or picnic table, as well as material handling equipment, retail store shelving, janitorial supplies, fire extinguishers, and much else. Uline also produces a wide array of boxes and packaging materials.

If your non-fungible token (NFT) startup just got funded and moved into an empty office, and you’re suddenly wearing the hat of facilities manager as well as CEO, Uline has you covered. They’ll gladly sell you industrial office furniture, everything you need to run a professional mailroom, and the like. Launching a popup store for your new plant-based, A.I.-optimized, Instagram-friendly line of bespoke bowler hats? Uline has all the retail store equipment you’ll need to make your space look legit.

In addition to furnishing startup offices, I’ve turned to Uline for attractive, professional-looking packaging when I created a product to sell on Amazon. The company stocks a wide variety of boxes, labels, poly bags, and the other materials you need to make a physical product look like something from a major manufacturer. When I was looking for packaging boxes which would fit my product, I chatted with a Uline rep, who recommended several options for me to try.

If you’re not developing a product or outfitting a physical space right now, Uline still has products you might like. If you’re decamping from Silicon Valley so you can work from home in Austin or Boulder, Uline will sell you a variety of moving kits which include all the boxes, packing supplies, wrapping paper and other materials you need to safely move your stuff. I used their kits when I moved from Baltimore to the Bay Area, and having all my moving stuff arrive at my door in one big bundle made the process much easier.

I still buy tons of stuff from generalist retailers like Amazon, Target.com, and Best Buy—probably more than I should. But when I need specialized items for work or for personal tech projects, I turn to specialized retailers like McMaster, Digikey, B&H, and Uline instead.

If you need a logic gate, a brass hose clamp, a package of Kodak Portra, or a towable dumpster, these specialist marketplaces are the first place I’d turn.

Co-Founder & CEO of Gado Images. I write, speak and consult about tech, privacy, AI and photography. tom@gadoimages.com

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