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“Razors and Blades” — Why the Father of the World’s Most Successful Business Model Is Taking It on the Chin

There was a time when a man would take a chunk of smooth rock — preferably black volcanic glass called obsidian — chip off an extremely sharp sliver or two, and shave his face with it. Or rubbed his face with pumice stone. This was followed by the straight razor, part grooming device, part murder weapon. In 1847, William Henson (no relation) created the first hoe razor, which placed the blade perpendicular to its handle like the garden tool. Still, it had to be sharpened frequently.

Then in 1895, an American traveling salesman had a brilliant idea that revolutionized male grooming — and retail marketing — forever. Why not make the blade disposable? It took six more years to perfect, but by 1903 King Camp Gillette was mass producing and selling the double-edged safety razor. He designed a heavy metal shaving handle that would last a lifetime. And here’s the genius part: he created razor blades that could be stamped out of high-carbon steel.gillette_super_speed

The idea was perfection itself. He sold the razor handles at a loss. But a pack of dozen blades — roughly three months worth — fetched an easy dollar. “During World War I, the U.S. Government issued Gillette safety razors to the entire armed forces,” according to “History of Razors and Shaving” by Mary Bellis. “By the end of the war, some 3.5 million razors and 32 million blades were put into military hands, thereby converting an entire nation to the Gillette safety razor.” Before long virtually every man in the world was spending four dollars a year on razor blades. Do the math.

Beyond ubiquitously smooth chins, Gillette galvanized the “Razors and Blades” business model, a simple formula for unbeatable retail success. Also called “Freebie Marketing,” one item is sold at a low price (or even given away for free) in order to increase sales of a complementary good. It’s a model the drives the way you and I purchase all kinds of things every day. Here are just a few examples:

  • Low-cost inkjet printers and high cost ink cartridges
  • Low-cost cell phones and monthly fees for cell service
  • Low-cost smart phones and devices like iPods, iPhones and tablets and purchasable content like apps, music, and movies
  • Cheap Swiffer mops and expensive pads
  • Video game consoles and game disks

These days, the razor racket is convulsing again and the market has been sliced up in some unexpected ways. The former shave kings Gillette and Schick have morphed their products into high-tech razor handles that vibrate and use disposable cartridges with five freaking blades in them that cost as much as five bucks apiece. Wander into The Art of Shaving at your nearby high-end mall and you’ll see razor handles that start at a throat-slitting $90. Upstarts like the online Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s offer low-cost disposable razors or blade cartridges delivered to your door each month, marketed with the promise of shaving your face and your budget. Meanwhile, in recent months Gillette has seen a sharp drop in sales. In fact, its market share has evaporated like cheap aftershave thanks to these new models and another trend, beard growth among hipsters.

When you combine these factors — trendy beards, prohibitively priced replacement blades, and new guerilla marketing from the competition — it sounds to me like Gillette needs to get back to its cutting-edge roots and start making their safety razor handles and blade packs like they did in the old days. Studies show that single-blade shaving is actually healthier for your skin, is better for the environment than chucking all those plastic cartridge pieces and disposable razors, and can save you a fortune. It’s also more manly. You can still get a dozen blades for a buck on Amazon. And, best of all, what hipster doesn’t want to shave the way his granddad did? Sure, several companies make fine safety razor handles that run anywhere from $5 to $200. But not Gillette. At least, not yet.

(Chris Henson is a double-edge safety razor user and enthusiast with 37 years of shaving experience. His razor of choice is a Gillette Super Speed, made in 1953. In 2013 he wrote this definitive manifesto on shaving.)

Chris Henson, Creative Director

Topics: Agency Life