When I joined the Wonder Drug Factory in late 1997, you still had to buy chemicals by writing down the name and catalog number on a form (and press hard; it was one of those multicolor triplicates). I thought that was pretty primitive then, since at my previous company we’d already gone to electronic ordering (clunky, especially in retrospect, but a lot better than anything involving blue, white, and yellow forms). But to find out where to buy the chemicals you wanted – now that was a challenge.
ChemSources was the usual solution. That was (is, I guess) a large volume containing compounds indexed by name and formula, with the suppliers listed for each. There was a red one for domestic suppliers, and a similar-sized blue book for international ones. And although it came out regularly, it was perforce always out of date. How could it not be? The suppliers changed their catalogs constantly. For that matter, the list of suppliers changed constantly. It wasn’t unusual to look up a compound, find its only commercial source was some little outfit you’d never heard of, and find on tracking them down that they’d gone out of business the previous year.
No one does it that way any more, of course, and good riddance. ChemSources appears to still be in business, and you can even get their bound volumes for your shelves. But why would you do such a thing? Even they offer online searching - well, for a subscription fee. But why would you do that? There are free sources for basically the same information. If you just want data on some compound and where it might turn up, ChemSpider is a good place to look. And if you want supplier information, eMolecules looks like the place to go. Their model is "basic search for free", and if you want pricing, export of data, or integration with your in-house databases, you can sign up for their "plus" service and pay fees.
And that's pretty reasonable, because I get a lot of use out of the free service, myself. I can see prices in my company's in-house ordering software. But I'm not one of the most price-conscious chemical consumers out there, since I'm mostly ordering small quantities of a lot of different things. As long as someone isn't egregiously ripping me off, I'm fine (and that's what our Purchasing department is there to check on, anyway, and don't they just love me over there). One of the things that I enjoy about eMolecules, though, is that they help me figure out what a lot of these little bar-coded vials are. There are a lot of suppliers that will send you ten milligrams of stuff with no real label on the vial, just an eight-digit number or the like, which isn't much help. If you don't label them right then - which often involves loading a CD that they shipped with the vials - you can be puzzled in a few weeks or months when you need the stuff again.
But the eMolecules folks have all these people in their files - Life, ChemDiv, Asinex, Specs, ChemBridge, and the other members of the catalog-number-only club. The search isn't perfect (for one thing, they're missing a fair bit of the corresponding CAS numbers to search by), but it's a lot better than anything else I've come across for free.