Recently I was pondering the rapid growth of traditional wetshaving. A few years ago, for example, there was one source of blade sampler packs for double-edged blades: LetterK on ShaveMyFace.com and BadgerAndBlade.com. (LetterK went from that to start WestCoastShaving.com, now a major on-line dealer.) The most recent edition of my Guide to Gourmet Shaving now lists 21 vendors that sell blade sampler packs, and the list is probably incomplete. The number of forums has grown, the number of vendors has grown, and the forum I frequent (reddit’s Wicked_Edge) has doubled in size (from 3500 to over 7000) in just the past four months.
I strongly suspect that this rapid growth is driven in part by a bad economy: people’s finances have been hit hard, and those trying to get a foothold in the workforce after finishing college find their financial situation especially difficult—difficult enough that a price of $4.50 plus sales tax for a single multiblade cartridge prompts a search for alternatives.
Moreover, younger shavers—the very group hit hardest by the economic downturn—are much more willing to experiment and learn new skills than the middle-aged; and the young also spend more time on the Web, where they find that good double-edged blades are available for 9¢ each. When they learn that they can get 50 blades—a year’s supply—for the price of a single Fusion multiblade cartridge, their interest increases sharply. And once they find out that the shave is not only better, but they now actually enjoy shaving, they tend to stick with it and tell all their friends.
So traditional wetshaving is growing, but a sign of more substantial growth, beyond mere fad or trend, would be the emergence of new double-edged safety razors: new developments in the tool traditional shavers use. Innovation in double-edged safety razors would demonstrate that some entrepreneurs have recognized a growing market and have invested in it by creating new, specialized offerings.
One sign that a product category is stagnant is that innovation ceases. For example, even with major advances in computer-aided design, materials technology, and manufacturing methods, new buggy-whip designs have not been introduced. Even though continued innovation and improvement for a product category is technically possible, when companies change their strategic direction and drop a product category, they curtail all efforts in that arena, directing their money, energy, and focus instead toward a new field of endeavor.
When Gillette, for example, decided to move to multiblade cartridges (to regain patent protections that had expired for the double-edged blade), they discontinued research and development on double-edged blades, including the razors that use such blades. That did not mean that no further improvement of such razors was possible; it meant merely that the company had made a strategic business decision to leave that market and instead direct their research, development, and marketing efforts to a higher-margin business. (How much do you think it actually costs for Gillette to manufacture that Fusion five-blade cartridge that sells for $4.50 (plus sales tax)?)
But now we once again are seeing innovations in traditional double-edged safety razors. A couple of years ago Edwin Jagger and Mühle worked together to create a newly designed head for their razors, replacing the Merkur Classic head they had used for years. Edwin Jagger’s DE8x series of razors uses this new head design and in my experience it clearly improves on the design of the Merkur Classic (which itself was once an innovative improvement on still earlier designs).
But even before Jagger/Mühle’s new head design was announced, the first iKon stainless steel razor came on the market. It was something new—and from a new company. The very first iKon, which sold at around $50, gave a harsh shave, but it was quickly superseded by a second model—the Bulldog Open Comb, also solid stainless—which turned out to be incredibly comfortable, a characteristic shared by all subsequent iKon razors to date.
Small production runs and high-quality materials and finishing meant that the $50 price could not hold. The Bulldog quickly moved to $85, and today iKon razors cost $150 and above. Another innovative stainless steel razor, the iKon S3S, uses an open comb on one side and a straight bar on the other and sells for $225 when you can find it. The Pils stainless double-edge safety razor, whose head design was yet another innovation in safety razor technology, debuted at $150 but now runs $240. The Feather Premium AS-D1—another newly designed stainless steel safety razor—entered the market at $150 and is now $200.
The Weber Stainless Razor
We now see a new manufacturer of a premium stainless-steel razor: Weber Razors, a company located in Missouri. The first razor from Weber is hefty (3.2 oz), innovative (with a “Diamond-Like Carbon” coating on the head), and well made (solid stainless steel with good chequering); and it provides a very fine shave.
The thing that catches one’s eye is the black finish—the “DLC”—on the razor’s head. The feel of this head on your skin is extremely pleasant: a kind of smooth pull that works well in shaving. (Were I their product manager, I would be bruiting about phrases like “Smooth-Pull Technology™”.) The long handle provides good balance (and you can buy the handle separately for $20, which offers the opportunity to mix and match three-piece razors: threads are standard across brands and Frankenrazors are fun to use).
I keep my active razors, each loaded with a blade, on a shelf in the bathroom and each day I pick one to use. The shelf holds 40 razors and those that I use most tend to drift to the left (the “head of the line”). I noticed recently that all the razors on that end now are stainless: the iKons, the Pils, the Feather Premium, and now the Weber. Something about a solid stainless razor—the heft, the finish, the look—is quite attractive, and perhaps these razors work so well has something to do with manufacturing cost: making a razor from solid stainless is much more costly than using a die-cast zinc alloy, so perhaps stainless prompts more care in design and testing. [UPDATE: A machine and metal worker pointed out that start-up costs for making die-cast razors are enormously greater than for machine tooling individual razors. He's right: the manufacturing costs---and thus, presumably, the importance of getting the design right, favors the big manufacturer. So the high quality and great performance of the stainless razors is not due to it being more expensive to create them in the first place. It's from some other cause. Apologies. - LG]
Whatever the reason, the Weber is a fine razor. I do not believe the $55 price can hold: materials, manufacturing, and small production runs all argue for a higher price, as iKon discovered. My view is that the version 1.0 price is artificially low and the price will inevitably rise. (Those trading in razor futures, take note.)
Some considering the razor may worry that the company could go under: tough economic times, as noted above, combined with a market that’s growing but by no means fully established and the possibility/likelihood that giants like Gillette/Procter & Gamble may move in to destroy or co-opt the movement, crushing small vendors and manufacturers. (P&G have already purchased the Art of Shaving chain.) The survival of Weber Razors is certainly not assured.
But what, exactly, does the razor buyer risk? The razor is a simple three-piece design: no moving parts, nothing to break. You get the whole thing and it’s complete in itself and will work for so long as the steel endures and blades are available. Once you have the razor, the manufacturer becomes irrelevant: you don’t need to get anything more from him. You don’t even need a manual—at least I didn’t get one with my Weber and had no trouble using it. An example of highly successful “orphan” razors are Gillette razors from the period 1930-1960: enormously popular once again and now widely used, with no support at all from the manufacturer.
The Weber is a very nice razor indeed—an innovative treatment in stainless steel of a good three-piece design—but the current price of $55 is simply too low to last.
I’ve never talked to Weber: I’m just a regular customer like anyone else, buying my razors at retail, on-line. Because I have a good collection of razors, including the innovative stainless razors mentioned above, I recognize the Weber as something deserving immediate attention. In fact, after using my first Weber, I bought a second (just in case they do go out of business).
The current safety razor scene
The obvious evidence of renewed innovation in double-edged safety razors—and the increasing pace of such innovation—clearly indicate that this product category is quickening. No longer stagnant, traditional wetshaving is attracting an influx of new users and stimulating new enthusiasm, and that in turn has attracted new entrepreneurs and new development. Things are looking up for traditional wetshavers.
Of course, major commercial manufacturers are also innovating in safety razor design (though for razors that use a multiblade cartridge), but in a different direction. Schick’s new top-of-the-line safety razor, for example, includes features not found in the Weber: things like a multi-speed vibrator, a battery-life indicator, a hydrating-gel reservoir, an LED readout, and a flip trimmer that (I assume) helps the shaver trim his flips. Note that, while these innovations might possibly offer some help in shaving, they certainly reduce the razor’s lifespan. (Apparently big manufacturers are determined that never again will their razors be used for decades into the future.)
The Weber razor lacks “an easy-to-read LED screen that communicates visually to clearly distinguish which vibration level is in use,” but that seems tangential to its shaving function, doesn’t it? I believe that Weber razors made today will still be shaving stubble a century from now, but the Schick Hydro Power Select razors will hit landfills within a few years if not within a few months. Long term, solid beats flimsy every time.
Take a minute and think about the sort of teaspoon that the Schick design team might create. (Feel free to describe the spoon in comments. )
It’s unusual for a stagnant product category to show new life and vigor, but it does happen. For example, craft breweries have in recent years once more become prominent. With traditional shaving, the revitalization seems to owe much to three overarching trends: one, already mentioned, is economic pressure; the other two are globalization of commerce and the rise of the Internet.
Globalization of commerce and the Internet
The Internet supports the Web, and with the development of good search engines, people with esoteric interests (such as traditional wetshaving) can more readily locate each other and pool their knowledge to identify products and dealers that support their interests. Moreover, online searches ignore national boundaries: the world is their oyster. So a thinly scattered group, connected through the Internet, can becomes a significant force. I don’t know the amount of money spent on traditional wetshaving worldwide, but the sum of purchases from all the scattered traditional shavers must be a sizable amount, as indicated by the growing number of vendors and manufacturers this activity supports.
With the globalization of commerce—to a great extent the result of containerized shipping (and of cheap and abundant petroleum, so this may change)—dealers in one country can easily serve a customer base that includes many in foreign lands. And the Web enables dealers to publicize their wares to scattered, remote customers without having to invest heavily in advertising: dealers need only maintain a good Web presence.
One example might suffice: Bruce Everiss in his shaving blog posted an excellent reference post on horsehair shaving brushes: their virtues, why they fell from favor, and their current situation and availability. (In brief, horsehair brushes occupy, in Goldilocks terminology, the “Mama Bear” position between Papa Bear boar brushes on the one hand (coarse and stiff—but still terrific brushes, well-loved by Italians in particular, thus the fine quality of boar brushes made by Omega, an Italian company) and Baby Bear badger (made of fine soft bristles from the Asian badger) on the other: horsehair brushes—coarser and more resilient than badger, softer and finer than boar—are terrific at the job of generating lather. Add that horses are unharmed in creating the brushes, which use horsehair collected through routine grooming, and what’s not to like?)
The Everiss post (his blog is located in the UK, but that is not only irrelvant, it’s not even evident when one is on the Web) stimulated interest throughout the English-speaking shaving world, prompting much discussion in the shaving forums. GiftsAndCare.com in Spain, which offers a good line of horsehair shaving brushes, began receiving orders from shavers all over the world who discovered them on the Web. Certainly quite a few orders came from the US (I myself actively participated), and now some US dealers (BullgooseShaving.net, for example) offer a good selection of horsehair brushes in their on-line shaving stores.
Horsehair brushes are a single example of how the Web has provided a way for traditional shaving to grow. Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving includes an appendix that lists links to shaving forums and shaving dealers, and the number of those has grown in each edition. The current edition (the fifth) lists 13 English-language shaving forums and 99 on-line dealers. [UPDATE: The link now points to a list of Amazon sources for the 6th edition, whose vendor list numbers now more than 120 on-line dealers. - LG]
A commercial environment like this attracts entrepreneurs. In summary: The Web offers easy, effective, and inexpensive access to information and products, and one result has been the creation of a growing market of traditional shavers, and that market (and trend) has attracted entrepreneurs, whose innovations (the DE safety razors mentioned above, for example) create more interest and thus attract more new shavers, increasing the size and activity of the market, drawing in more entrepreneurs and vendors… This is positive feedback, which can lead to quite rapid growth indeed. And when you look at what’s happening, you indeed see such growth.
The ratchet effect of traditional wetshaving
This phenomenon of niche markets exploding due to the shifting economics of communication (the Internet) and commerce (globalization from containerization and cheap fuel) is discussed in detail in Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, but the traditional shaving movement differs somewhat from other niche markets: traditional shaving has a ratchet-like effect. Let me explain, drawing on some statistics I just made up. (I’m sure you’ve heard that 89% of statistics are simply made up on the spot.)
Let’s say that in the US, Canada, and Europe about 85% of men shave their beards. And when men actually try traditional wetshaving, something like 85% stick with it—mainly because it’s so enjoyable, but other factors—better shaves, kinder to skin, much lower expense once the initial kit is in hand—certainly add weight to a decision to continue and also are reasons that resonate well with, say, one’s wife. So traditional wetshaving is, on the whole, a room with a one-way door: guys once in want to stay. And, guys being guys and competitive by nature, they want to brag to their buddies about how their shaves are now much better (“than yours” implied), and in that context offer additional reasons (gadget appeal, the bad-ass factor), playing to the male audience.
The result is that more and more men will be drawn into traditional wetshaving over time, with a likely market size of 85% (the proportion of men who stick with it after trying it) of 85% (the proportion of men who shave) of the total number of men in the US, Canada, and Europe. Do the math and you will see that traditional wetshavers could eventually amount to about 75% of that male population. And, of course, as more men join in and talk it up, traditional wetshaving becomes more visible and prominent, which will induce more to try it. And if newbies get good guidance for the transition (and sources of such guidance increase steadily), they will (a) adopt the method permanently and (b) brag to their buddies, which brings them into the fold, whereupon they become traditional wetshaving missionaries.
You see how quickly this is building. No wonder we once again are seeing innovation in double-edged safety razors.
The immediate response one has in seeing the size of the potential market for traditional wetshaving is, “Problem solved!” With a potential market that large, big corporations will be on this like hair on a gorilla. Unfortunately, big corporations have to contend with their own ratchet effect: profits. Large public corporations must see profits increase every single year if not every single quarter. That’s impossible, of course, but that doesn’t matter: it still is required, or CEOs lose their jobs (along with quite a few other people, and frequently the CEO is far from the first to go—before that the company will try layoffs, plant closings, outsourcing, anything, desperate to keep profits inexorably moving upward—the CEO, after all, gets to pick (up to a point) the changes to be made, and few CEOs fire themselves).
In traditional shaving, supplies are a constant seller, but a shaver who once buys a razor and brush has (in theory) completed purchasing of the big-ticket items, and double-edged blades today provide profit margins as thin as the blade itself: the blade-making machinery is old (and well-maintained in developing countries, whose manufacturers in many cases bought them from Gillette when Gillette abandoned double-edged blades). The machines thus by now have long since been fully depreciated, so there are no tax benefits to provide a profit cushion: profits must come from simply selling the blades, which (as noted above) go for as little 9¢ apiece though most go for higher prices—in the 25¢-40¢ range, and some few may cost 60¢ or more—but none, I assure you, come close to $4.50 apiece.
So we are now engaged in a great struggle between shavers—who want a good shave at a reasonable and affordable price—and large global corporations—who must extract ever greater profits from consumers. We in the traditional shaving movement are in the front lines, and the outcome is far from certain. But if the traditional shaving market becomes large enough, new companies (who are just beginning their profit ascent) will spring up to serve that market, under the umbrella of the exorbitant prices companies like Procter & Gamble now charge for multiblade cartridges. And, of course, P&G (in its plants in the developing world) continue to manufacture double-edged blades, but they are doing all they can to kill the product category: discontinuing brands, shutting down plants, and trying to convince (for example) India’s teeming millions of shavers to switch to a cartridge—the Vector Plus cartridge, just two blades, very cheap (for now). Once enough shavers switch to cheap cartridges, the profit ascent will begin, with double-edged blades—and inexpensive cartridges—made ever scarcer and more difficult to find. From the point of view of big corporations, consumers are sheep to be sheared, for money rather than wool.
How this will end, no one knows: the future is notoriously difficult to predict. But every shaver I know has his own hoard of blades for the “Shavepocalypse.” And the movement to the tools and methods of traditional wetshaving continues to accelerate even as corporations frantically resist.
We live in interesting times.
UPDATE: I turn out to have been conservative on the price differentials. I just read a post from tommij, a guy in Denmark. Typical price for Fusion cartridges there are around $6 each if you buy a 4-pack and $5.50 each if you buy an 8-pack. Alternatively, he can buy a 200-blade box of SuperMax for about 4 2/3 cents per blade. That is, he can choose between paying $5.50 for a Fusion cartridge (by buying a pack of 8 for about $44), the same cost as 118 blades in the SuperMax box o’ blades. Since a DE blade typically lasts about a week, he’s looking at spending the same amount for however long he can stretch a Fusion’s life vs. 118 weeks of double-edged blades, or just over 2 1/4 years. Not a difficult choice, in my eyes.