clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The absurd quest to make the “best” razor

The $3.5 billion shaving industry is secretive and litigious — and disrupting itself silly.

“We’re debuting a razor with 19 razors and 74 lubrication strips,” Gillette’s head of North American grooming Pankaj Bhalla announces to a room of trade journalists and general shaving enthusiasts at Gillette’s Global Innovation Summit in early November.

“Just kidding — no, we’re not,” he adds, without taking a breath.

There are 50 or so spectators eating banana-and-Nutella mini waffles and tiny rounds of avocado toast among cocktail-height tables. The tables have what look like modest wedding centerpieces, except there are no goldfish or floating flowers and there are Gillette razors stabbed into piles of blue rocks ostensibly designed for fish tanks. Bhalla tells the crowd that the theme of 2019 will be “to design with meaning.”

The glitz of this “summit” implies unquestioned success; the stress sweat visible on the brows of its speakers implies disaster. Neither is exactly untrue. Though Procter & Gamble’s Gillette brand (tagline: “The Best a Man Can Get”) still holds about 54 percent of the global market share for razors, that’s down from 70 percent in 2010.

The entire razor industry is flailing. It’s not just that Gillette is getting a smaller piece of the pie; the pie itself is also getting smaller. That’s partly driven by the fact that the population of the United States is aging: When you get old, you don’t grow as much hair, so you don’t shave as much, and then (unrelated) you die.

We are also, as a society, becoming relaxed about hair. Too relaxed, if you are in the market of selling razors. Beards and mustaches and stuff are en vogue. The country is getting less interested in pressuring women to keep themselves as hairless as infants seven days a week. A recent report from the global market research firm Mintel highlights the fact that 25 percent of women ages 18 to 23 — and 22 percent of men, but who cares — agree that it is “acceptable for women to have visible underarm hair.”

According to Mintel, sales of “shaving and hair removal tools” are estimated to see about $3.5 billion in sales in 2018, a decline of nearly 4 percent from the year before. Worse, Mintel’s analysts predict there will be no growth for at least the next five years.

Yet in tandem with the downward spiral of the necessity of shaving tools, we are experiencing the arrival of an extreme number of new shaving tools to buy. At the same time, there’s only so much true innovation possible for an item like a razor, which does one thing and almost always does it well.

It’s a classic example of capitalism working not quite the way that was promised but the way it does when put into practice by humans. We see it time and again — with the hotel industry, with cable TV, now with razors: Shrinking markets are not allowed to simply shrink, but instead inspire aggressive pandering, bizarre advertising, and nichification of products that have no reason to be so differentiated.

A surplus of choice implies to consumers that this is the type of purchase they should care deeply about. Why else would there be so many options?

Gillette, or rather the inventor King C. Gillette, patented the first safety razor more than 100 years ago. It was the official razor of World War I, thanks to a government contract that put 3.5 million of them into the hands of American soldiers, therefore becoming the official razor of the United States.

For decades, Gillette was mostly alone, with just its lackluster drugstore aisle competitor Schick (owned by Pfizer until 2003, now by Playtex parent company Edgewell Personal Care) for company. When the high-end mall brand the Art of Shaving posed the briefest of threats in the late ’90s, Procter & Gamble just bought it. But then came the budget subscription service Dollar Shave Club, launched by Mark Levine and Michael Dublin with a viral, fratty YouTube commercial in 2011; it raised a total of $163.5 million by the end of 2015 and was acquired by P&G archrival Unilever for $1 billion in 2016.

Then came Harry’s, the difference-splitter, an affordable direct-to-consumer brand with appealing millennial-courting aesthetics, from Andy Katz-Mayfield and Warby Parker co-founder Jeff Raider in 2013. When its latest round of funding closed in January 2018, Harry’s had raised $375 million and was valued at $1 billion; the company promised it would turn a profit by the end of this year.

The two startups have a combined share of a little over 12 percent of the market, with another 15 percent going to Schick (which recently started selling discount blades that fit on Gillette handles).

There’s also Supply, funded through a series of six-digit Kickstarter campaigns, promising to bring back the perfect single-blade safety razor. Walker & Company’s Bevel, collecting $33 million in venture capital, which is also putting out a single-blade safety razor, designed specifically for people of color with coarser and curlier facial hair. Billie, a women-focused brand with a $6 million seed round. The British startup Cornerstone, which has raised just under $10 million and sells subscription boxes containing razor replacements, toothpaste, and face wash.

All of them are going up against the original shaving disrupter: Gillette, “the best a man can get,” which patented the disposable razor in 1903 (and has, kind of, offered a blade subscription service via Amazon since 2007). The company is known for spending tens of millions of dollars a year on research and development, and has the market clout to appear on the shelves of every pharmacy and big-box retailer in the world. It is also bleeding market share to companies that are ... cooler.

This is why, at its Global Innovation Summit, Gillette launched a line of customizable 3D-printed razors, and why we were welcome to try 3D-printing our own razors in the back of the room after the presenters were done talking. This is why, next year, Gillette is launching a $169 heated razor, “the ultimate indulgence” for a man who loves a “hot towel experience,” which we were also welcome to try at a shaving station in the back of the room, if we were men.

The company’s history shows that its fixation on arguably needless innovation is not new. Schick was founded in 1926, just as Gillette’s first patent was expiring.

For the next several decades, Gillette would experiment with “adjustable” razors, razors with oxidized blue steel, razors with “microfins” that push the face with their little rubber bodies to make facial hairs pop out like blackheads, or, as Gillette puts it on its website, “gently stretch loose, gel-like facial skin.” And so on — all kinds of things that would differentiate the product it invented from the products made by the competitors it had no legal means to crush.

Razor innovation had become a literal punchline by 1975, with Saturday Night Live predicting the triple-blade Mach 3 a full 23 years before its inevitable birth. (Gillette reportedly spent $200 million on advertising and $750 million to revamp its production system to make that first triple-blade Mach 3 in 1998.)

In the 1980s, Gillette reportedly spent more than $200 million to develop the Sensor, a razor with tiny springs that allowed each blade to move separately from one another. This was a response to the expiration of its patents on the double-edged safety razor, the “tiltable” safety razor handle, and the blade guard, among others. As patents expire on meaningful innovations — and said innovations become industry standards — they have to be replaced with new, less meaningful ones that give an updated competitive edge.

To put it carefully: There is little incentive to improve the shaving experience, as it is fine, but there is plenty of incentive to come up with something new to patent, as this is how you combat competition. This can prompt some strange behavior, and even stranger product lines.

At the beginning of this year, Procter & Gamble reported that the “grooming” segment of its business (more than $1 billion in sales per quarter) was performing worse than any other (the company is made up of about 65 brands, across beauty, grooming, health, home, and family care categories). It saw a 3 percent decline in sales even as the company’s overall sales were up 2 percent; for comparison, beauty sales were up 10 percent.

The same factors that are making Gillette’s grooming division less profitable are the ones that allowed low-cost, direct-to-consumer razor brands like Harry’s and Dollar Shave Club to get a foothold. More casual shaving attitudes logically mean wanting to spend less on a product that removes hair, whether or not it can be justifiably called “the best a man can get.”

This does not mean it’s been easy to compete. According to Mike Dodd, a board member at the venture capital firm Silverton Partners, which invested in Billie’s seed round, there are fewer than 10 manufacturers of razor blades in the world, and contracts with them are extremely difficult to come by. Billie co-founder Georgina Gooley refuses to provide the name of her company’s blade supplier, and when I ask why, she says it’s an industry standard not to. Dodd also declines to tell me where Billie gets its blades but says it took years of negotiations for the manufacturer to agree to sell to a startup.

Gillette spent years trying to kill the new, lower-cost alternatives. It ordered hundreds of dollars’ worth of Harry’s razors immediately upon the company’s launch, apparently to examine them before suing for patent infringement.

The patent in question was filed in 1998 and described an invention simply called “Razors”; Gillette asked for a jury trial and reparations in the amount of three times the damages of lost sales. The case was dismissed in less than a week.

This did not stop Gillette from pursuing further litigation. In December 2015, the company filed a patent infringement suit against Dollar Shave Club. In the filing, Gillette alleged that the manner in which its competitor was coating its razor blades to maintain sharpness was in violation of a 2004 patent, asking that the state of Delaware immediately block the sale of all Dollar Shave Club razors. Dollar Shave Club filed a countersuit two months later, and both were dropped.

In December 2016, Gillette pivoted back to attacking Harry’s, with a 30-second ad that claimed most customers who tried Harry’s didn’t become repeat buyers. It was odd timing, given that it was Dollar Shave Club, not Harry’s, that had just been purchased by Unilever for $1 billion.

Harry’s sent Gillette’s parent company a letter accusing the brand of false advertising. (Gillette said it was citing data from a market research firm, but Harry’s pointed to data from the same firm that proved its side.)

Finally, in 2017, the company slashed prices of replacement blades and other key products an average of 12 percent, writing an apologetic blog post that started, “You told us our blades can be too expensive and we listened.”

Outside of legal scrambling and price lowering, Gillette has had little choice but to make its products more and more noticeably different from those of its millennial-friendly competitors, which prioritize simple design and a good-enough approach to function. (It’s a razor. It shaves. What is “best”?) Its attempts to reinvent this thing that can’t be reinvented tend to involve one baby step of progress and four bounding leaps toward the absurd.

In 2014, for example, Gillette announced it had “rebuilt” shaving with the Fusion ProGlide FlexBall razor, which was unveiled at a press event at New York’s Highline Ballroom and was reportedly capable of cutting hairs 23 microns shorter than Gillette’s previous premium razor. Also worth noting: It is so ugly.

More recently, in October, Gillette announced its partnership with the Boston-based 3D printing company Formlabs — which typically focuses on jewelry and orthodontia — to launch its “Razor Maker” site, where customers can customize a razor that will be built for them from scratch, using stereolithography technology, in five to seven business days. (The idea is that young people care about custom sneakers, and therefore young people will care about custom face razors.)

This is the new product line it models at its Innovation Summit, though I, a journalist obsessed with men’s razors, was already aware of it and had ordered a custom 3D-printed razor a week prior.

The Razor Maker offers many choices; the dominant aesthetic is, I would say, Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). The premium option is to swap out 3D-printed plastic for chrome, running up your bill an extra $20, though getting your name embossed on any handle is free. Other than that, these are just standard Gillette three-blade or five-blade razors, which is probably why, when I placed my order for a $19 bright blue “coral”-themed, “Kaitlyn”-engraved razor a week after Razor Maker’s launch, it was only the 644th order to be processed. It was delivered to me wrapped in a silky purple ribbon.

The ludicrousness of today’s open market means, mostly, having the option to pay a lot of money for something or not a lot of money for something, without ever really approaching a concrete, evidence-backed reason for the decision.

That includes not just a custom 3D-printed razor with your name immortalized in the handle, or a razor modeled after a hot towel, but also $80 razors designed by former military fighter jet engineer Patrick Coddou, who describes the merit of his product — the Supply single-blade razor — by telling me, “It’s how our fathers and grandfathers and everybody before us used to shave. It’s not like you’re going to slice your face off.”

The premise of a single-blade razor is that it causes less irritation, swiping the skin once rather than three or five times, and tugging at hairs only once as well. “We’re trying to convince guys to wake up from the myth and the marketing of the last 20 years that more blades is better,” Coddou says.

“Around the time I came up with the idea, there were these other companies coming out with new multi-blade razors and acting like they were improvements on previous products,” he explains. “That was really frustrating to me. They weren’t improvements; they were just cheaper and easier to get.”

The best is … what we started with?

On the same side of the debate, there’s Bevel founder Tristan Walker, who says his company’s single-blade razor is the “first and only shaving system designed specifically to reduce irritation, a problem faced by 80 percent of black men and women and 30 percent of everyone else.” He too points out that cutting hair so short that it slides back underneath the skin is demonic, particularly for people with curly hair, which will spiral back into their face.

“Full disclosure, we don’t have science or clinical tests to back up our claims,” Coddou adds. “But what I can tell you is based on the plenty of reviews we get from our customers and the comments we get, it reduces irritation and ingrown hairs. The only ‘science’ that exists — and I’m using air quotes right now, you can’t see me — that proves multi-blades work better was funded by Gillette. They won’t really give any insight into the procedure or the processes used to come to that claim.”

That characterization of the science is only slightly unfair. Last year, Amy Couture-Rizzo, a product researcher at Gillette, walked the Boston Globe’s Jeff Harder through the company’s history of adding blades. It started with one, obviously, and did not debut a two-blade razor until 1971 (the Trac II, which was supposed to reduce irritation by cutting down on the number of times the razor touched your face).

To justify five blades, Gillette loves to tout what’s called “the hysteresis effect,” in which the first blade pulls the hair above the skin and each subsequent blade cuts it just a little bit shorter. Sherwin Parikh, founder of the Tribeca Skin Center and a practicing dermatologist affiliated with New York-Presbyterian Hospital, tells me this is correct: “Yes, five-blade razors do create a better, smoother shave for many men.” But! “For some, the closeness actually leads to ingrowns, because the hair becomes trapped under a layer of thicker regrowing skin within days. This is known as pseudofolliculitis barbae.”

Jules Lipoff, an assistant professor of clinical dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, says, directly, “More blades translates to more unnecessary cutting, ingrown hairs, and irritation of the skin.” Lipoff also stresses to me that our society’s obsession with clean-shaven men (and their “professional” appearance) is misguided as, “in fact, the act of removing hair may increase risk for infections.”

Single-blade razors, then, are safer. However, the blade gets duller quicker when there’s only one doing all the work, so you have to replace your razor far more often. Though Coddou emphasizes that his 50-cent blades are a “fraction of the cost of Gillette’s” and half the price of Harry’s, it probably evens out.

Then there’s the $80 handle, which Coddou acknowledges is up there, saying his customer is “willing to stomach it” in exchange for the better experience of diminished irritation and, it’s implied, feeling like a badass. He points out that Oui Shave, a New York-based startup founded by Estée Lauder alum Karen Young, is doing the same thing, but for women. It sells a $75 rose-gold single-blade razor, which it recommends you pair with the company’s $30 signature shaving cream.

So single-blade razors are the best? They are perfect? Actually, no. “Double- or triple-blade razors achieve the best balance of getting a close shave with fewer ingrowns,” Parikh says.

Which perhaps is why, at its November Innovation Summit, Gillette is also launching SkinGuard, a razor with just two blades, plus a skin guard in between those two blades to push the skin flat and prevent irritation. This has something to do with firefighters, so we watch a short film about them.

Here’s the gist: If a man is happy with a five-blade razor, and not experiencing irritation, and not, like two in three men, a haver of “sensitive skin,” the SkinGuard razor is not for him. This point is reiterated several times — the SkinGuard razor is only for 67 percent of men, who have complained of irritating their faces with Gillette’s existing product line.

Gillette has “committed itself to a metamorphosis,” we are told.

What about women’s razors? Doesn’t anyone care about me, and the anecdote I tell with alarming frequency about the time I shaved off my pinky fingernail with a new $2 Bic razor and then passed out at the sight of my own blood? (They are extremely sharp, extremely good bang for the buck! Bic has acknowledged that it cannot compete in the razor market and will instead focus on lighters!)

Well, yes, though the US women’s shaving industry is much smaller than the men’s ($1 billion versus $2.5 billion). For decades, the razor has been marketed to men as a tool, a piece of machinery, and for decades, it has been marketed to women as a waterfall, a goddess’s sigh, the smell of coconut, the kiss of a beach babe, the glitter of a poolside bartender’s immaculate grin — he loves your calves. They are so clean, have always been clean, hairless is clean, and you have never seen something dirty in your life. If your experience of the world could be violently broken down to a single chemical element, it would be chlorine.

Gillette’s women’s brand, Venus, is an originator and epitome of this cultural myth, and it is also what venture capitalist Mike Dodd calls “an afterthought brand,” a rough draft of “a ’60s ad man” type of concept about what women might want and how to sell it to them. “It’s right there in the tagline,” he says. “You know, the best a man can get.” Venus wasn’t launched until 2001, though Gillette had been encouraging women to remove “objectionable” hair since 1915, when it debuted the single-blade “Milady Décolleté” safety razor.

Which is to say: For a very long time, no one has considered the possibility that while exploiting women’s insecurities and cultural stigmas might be profitable, there could be an even more profitable way to sell razors to women.

Gillette has handed a free one to the competition here. Flamingo, the women’s line Harry’s introduced this fall, and Billie, a “wellness company” that hinges its hopes and dreams and branding on eradicating the pink tax — the phenomenon of companies putting unexplained markups on women’s products even when they’re identical to men’s in all ways except ludicrous aesthetics — can step strongly into the space by disrupting not razors themselves, but the speech around them. For this demographic, the “best” razor may just be one that’s sold on fair terms.

Billie, Dodd tells me, “stands for not getting ripped off.” It’s growing faster than Dollar Shave Club was at this point in its history, he claims. And it’s easy enough to see why: Billie razors are cheap ($9 for a starter kit that includes the handle, a wall mount, and two five-blade razors) and come in what we can call fun ’n’ funky colors, like coral, blush, and “cool blue.” In November, it launched a “limited edition” ’90s-nostalgia-inspired color scheme called “DreamPop”, which ships with butterfly hair clips, a scrunchie, and temporary tattoos. The ads are all Melodrama purple eyeshadow, red lips, and visible armpit hair, cool gal pals with punchy makeup and an accessible aesthetic.

Co-founder Georgina Gooley says the razors are designed to look nice in your bathroom, and that the wall mount that comes in the starter kit is the first one she’s ever used that hasn’t fallen down in the shower. Women hate the Venus’s suction cups, she says, and prefer Billie’s proprietary putty. Women also hate that pink tax, which is abused perhaps most egregiously by razor makers and the dry-cleaning industry. Women hate being told not to have body hair, so they love a shaving company that tells them to shave “when they want, if they want.”

“I think women are going to engage well with that,” Mintel home and personal care analyst Olivia Guinaugh says. “Especially with all these female empowerment movements going on.”

This is also the general idea behind Harry’s women’s brand Flamingo, which launched in October.

Brittania Boey, the senior VP of research and development for Harry’s while the new brand was being developed, and now the company’s chief commercial officer, says that Flamingo’s design prompt was to think of a razor for women as a tool, the same way razors for men are thought of as tools.

“The best tools [are designed] to find their way in your hand,” she says, explaining how the Flamingo handle was created to be as easy-to-use and functional as a men’s razor. “And then the second thing for us is that we think aesthetics really matter.” That’s why the Flamingo razor has a thick, heavy handle with details in metals like rose-gold.

Flamingo’s razor, like Harry’s, has five blades. Like Harry’s razors, it comes in multiple colors, which Boey says customers “collect” because they look so nice in a bathroom.

“We wanted textures and materials that work well in wet and dry environments and also look aesthetically beautiful, like something you want to have in your bathroom. For the handle design, the packaging, the colors — we looked at beautiful bathrooms and comfortable bedrooms, environments that women feel good in and want to take care of themselves in.”

There is no price difference between the two brands, she points out. (No pink tax!) When I ask how Flamingo will be marketed at launch, Boey says it won’t be, and the company will focus on putting the products “in the hands of extended friends of the brand.” Two weeks after it launches, I see a Flamingo poster on the newsstand in front of an indie movie theater in the West Village, and the following week, I see a much bigger poster on the side of a building in Williamsburg. Two weeks later, the entire Spring Street subway station is plastered with posters.

“If you notice their branding, they completely copied our branding and our angle,” Billie investor Dodd says of Flamingo, before quickly acknowledging that the Billie ethos is a pretty obvious one in 2018. “They’re gonna be a good competitor. There’s room for two.”

The word “disruption” no longer has a working definition; this is just something we have to accept. Disruption is supposed to get us to the best but can often feel like it gets us to something worse. Or different, but the same in terms of value and function and everything but framing, or the same, but more confusing.

Gillette, nevertheless, is constantly and expensively working to disrupt the totally acceptable, functional object it introduced more than 100 years ago. Gillette scientists also have a virtual reality studio at the company headquarters in Boston, which they use to preview new products. In VR. For some reason. Before these products touch faces!

Though it is still much bigger than everyone else, Gillette is no longer the sole shaving industry power player. So, it stands to reason, Gillette is also no longer the only shaving industry power player that is totally wigging out about the state of the declining industry, undergoing an existential crisis resulting in curious products and odd brand moves.

Take, for example, Dollar Shave Club founder Michael Dubin, who announced in September that his company would pivot away from its bro-y reputation and revamp itself as “Dollar Shave Club 2.0” — a wellness brand. “Our mission at Dollar Shave Club is to help guys take care of their minds and bodies so they can be their best selves,” he told Adweek. “We are approaching that mission in two ways: with great products for your body and great content for your mind.”

Fortunately, the content he is referring to includes the delightful Mel Magazine, which publishes smart and insightful reported features about modern masculinity. Unfortunately, the great products for your body he is referring to includes a line of totally generic skin care products, hair creams, toothbrushes, and body washes. Most recently, it launched a line of six colognes called Blueprint, because its market research in Austin and Los Angeles said that 62 percent of men wear cologne every day and that 76 percent of men own more than two different colognes. (More than two different colognes!)

Of this launch, Dubin told Adweek, “I believe fragrance is the defining feature of many products across categories. Dollar Shave Club has chosen to make fragrance an investment and a defining feature of our product line.” I’m not allowed to end a paragraph with four lines of question marks, but just know what I would do if I were in charge.

And we are just now, if you can believe it, getting to the newest and biggest complicating factor in the razor wars. Gillette’s dread about losing even more market share to Bevel (which is now in Target and Macy’s), or Harry’s (which is now sold in both Target and Walmart, as well as Barneys and its own Manhattan flagship store), or Dollar Shave Club (which now has the might of Unilever behind it) may actually be eased in the coming months by an unlikely hero: President Donald Trump.

In March, the Trump administration announced that imported steel would be subject to a tariff of 25 percent, one of a slew of new tariffs that affect dozens of consumer-facing industries. Gillette applied for and was granted an exemption from the tariff, arguing that the type of steel it needs is not made in the US. The “very specialized steel” is imported from Sweden, the company stated, also claiming to have helped develop the recipe for this steel 20 years ago. Schick was reportedly granted a similar exemption on the same grounds.

In 2014, Harry’s spent $100 million to buy a German razor factory, and declined to comment on whether it had received a tariff exemption. Dollar Shave Club buys its blades from a South Korean manufacturer, and also declined to comment. Billie declined to divulge both which country it procures its blades from and whether the company would be exempted from the tariff. Ditto Bevel.

For Supply, blade prices will go up even though the blades are made in the US — the company’s manufacturer, which Coddou does not name, imports its raw steel from Japan and Germany and has not been exempted.

While my 3D-printed Gillette razor was being constructed in a lab in Boston (under the loving care of a woman named Desiree, according to a note included in the box), I was still shaving.

I shaved with a five-blade Billie razor I ordered just to see if the putty wall mount was as good as advertised (yes!). I immediately loathed it because the brand announced the cooler-looking “DreamPop” version three days after I placed my order for boring Coral, which is coral and doesn’t come with stickers. I also shaved with a green two-blade Bic razor that I probably got in a Christmas stocking. I hated that too, because it made me feel like I did not care enough about myself to invest in something nice.

While my 3D-printed Gillette razor was getting rerouted through the US postal system, having apparently been delivered to Vox Media headquarters with insufficient information about its intended recipient, I shaved with my sister’s three-blade Comfort Glide Venus razor because I forgot to pack my own when I went home for Thanksgiving, and with my mom’s cheaper Simply Venus razor (also three blades!) because sometimes I prefer to use her shower — it’s fancier. In all instances, hair left my body, and I was annoyed by the unspecialness of the task.

Rationally, I know this makes no sense, and that I don’t need to own anything that’s the “best” or even “cool” to have decent personal hygiene. Shaving is shaving, and I rarely feel like doing it, and though I live in a world full of seductive branding and have bought plenty of things for hardly any reason at all, I do still have my wits about me enough to realize that there is no amount of marketing that is going to make me care deeply about what razor I pass over my armpits when I am half asleep.

To that end, I haven’t used my custom Gillette razor yet. When I do get a chance to try it, I will consider filling out the survey Gillette sent me three days before I received the razor, asking that I let them know what I think about their “passion project,” Razor Maker. I will say that it cut my hair, like every razor I have used before and every razor I will use after, and that whether it is the best a man can get will remain up for discussion forever.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Harry’s total funding, which is $375 million.