[Note from Mantic59: Will King and I became acquainted on Twitter a few years ago and we’ve had some really interesting discussions over that time. While many Sharpologist readers do not use cartridge razors, there are some interesting technologies beyond the blade count, so I asked Will to describe some of the things that go into the business of the cartridge razor.] I founded King of Shaves in April 1993 following redundancy from my job in marketing. Twenty five years on, I take a uniquely informed look at what has changed in the world of shaving, razors and blades in nearly a quarter of a century, and what’s coming down the track.
Some Shaving Background
King of Shaves started with a single product, a shaving oil made from a blend of natural and essential oils. Having lost my job in the marketing services industry, I wanted to get into making products – I hated shaving – daily rash, burn and pain – and the creation of my shaving oil solved that. I hand-filled 10,000 bottles over 2 weeks, got it listed in Harrods, then Boots, bought shave.com for $18 in 1995, and we came to define the huge growth in what’s now known as men’s grooming. Amazingly, in 1993, the only shaving brands you could buy in the UK were Gillette, Wilkinson Sword (razors) and Gillette, Colgate-Palmolive (shaving preparations). Nowadays there are thousands of brands, all battling for market share.
When you wet shave, you need water, a shaving prep and razor. I’ll write an article on the importance of shaving preparations (foam, gel, cream, oil, serum, soaps, aerosols, tubed) another time. But, in short, wetting stubble, which when dry as the tensile strength of a similar diameter of copper wire, is imperative. It weakens the cutting force needed by 90% or so. And when you’re ready to shave, you need a razor. Here’s YOUR guide to what I know about this sector, you may be amazed, surprised and intrigued by what you read next!
IT’S THE PROFIT, STUPID.
Let’s get this out right up front. Making and selling system razor handles & their attendant replacement cartridges can be a wildly profitable business. King Camp Gillette (who founded Gillette in the early 20th century) perfected what became known as the ‘Razor & Blade Business Model’ where he ‘gave away’ a handle (that only his blades fitted), when it dulled, you replaced it. Up until then, razors were stropped with a leather to keep them sharp, they were ‘cut-throat’ and difficult and challenging to use safely.
Gillette’s ‘Safety Razor’ was soon followed by many other imitators (e.g. Schick, Wilkinson Sword and others). Over the ensuing years, Gillette defined ‘The Best A Man Can Get’ in safe daily shaving. They were able to manufacture replacement blades (then DE or Double Edged) for fractions of cents, and sell for cents and increasingly dollars. The modern day equivalent of this is Apple’s AppStore, where you buy an iPhone and populate it with Apps that can be downloaded by you, but the companies who put them there face up to 30% of revenues made by them being taken by Apple.
SHAVING COMPETITION HEATS UP
To defend their incredible position, Gillette patented their various innovations (patents last up to 20 years), viciously defended them if competitors attempted to infringe, and spent heavily on marketing. In the early 1970’s, a huge innovation was made in the system razor market, with the introduction of Trac2 – a two bladed razor! What the first blade missed the second blade would get. Wowzers! This accelerated Gillette’s share, and along with the introduction of disposable razors from Bic (hundreds of billions will have since been used and disposed…) it was never easier for men to shave safely, easily, quickly, cheaply (kinda) and conveniently. Schick developed their twin blade razor, and when I came to launch King of Shaves in 1993, the razor I chose to photograph King of Shaves next to was a Schick (Wilkinson Sword) Protector 3D. Its head pivoted (sound familiar?) had two blades, with wires that acted as a skin guard, so the width between the razor blades could be wider, and so wouldn’t clog with stubble). This had become a big problem with twin blade razors, and what happened next defined Gillette’s growth and eventual sale to Procter & Gamble in 2005 for $57Bn dollars (27 x profits, 9 x sales).
IT’S THE PATENTS, STUPID
In the 1980’s, one clever chap working out of Reading, England for Gillette developed a crucial suite of patents that led to first the launch of Gillette Sensor, then Mach3 and finally Fusion (these over a 15 year period). All of these razors featured three hugely significant (and patented) innovations. These three patents hugely upped the performance of Gillette’s razors, and with their competitors unable to respond, exploded Gillette’s market share. I was lucky enough to talk with the inventor in 2007 (he’d long left Gillette) but he sadly passed away shortly after.
WHAT MAKES A SHAVING SYSTEM RAZOR CARTRIDGE GREAT?
Five things are key:
- The blade edge and coating.
- How the blades are held in the cartridge, and the exposure/spacing between them.
- The ability of the cartridge to maintain contact with the skin at the pivot point.
- The inclusion of a lubricating strip to aid glide and comfort.
- Skin Tensioners & Edging Trimmers.
Gillette’s Sensor nailed all of these key attributes, and the introduction of Mach3 in 1998 further reinforced Gillette’s dominance up until their sale in 2005. P&G bought Gillette (along with Duracell and its other ‘replacement’ brands) because of the strength of their IP, the profits the cartridges made (in the 90% profit margin area) and the then nigh on 80% worldwide market dominance, since eroded by competition (and no new “genuine” innovation for over 15 years). In fact, there has been a resurgence in old school DE razors, for example Bevel sell a DE razor targeted at the African American market, as shaving with a system razor for black guys can result in severe pseudofolliculitis barbae (or ingrown hairs, very annoying and painful).
Blade edge & coating. Yes, if you have the money, you can buy a machine and grind a strip of steel from Hitachi, Sandvik, US Steel into a blade. It costs a few hundred thousand dollars. But, getting a blade ground, coated and mounted into a cartridge with a six-sigma rate of failure (0.000001) is almost impossible. Of course, patents are important, but “Know How” is critical. Know how is when you don’t patent (make public) how you do something, you keep it super secret (e.g. the formula for Coca Cola or KFC batter) and others can’t work out how you do it so well.
Gillette have decades of know how, and how they make their blades consistently sharp, with evenly spread PTFE coatings (this is a plastic based lubricant that coats the blade and cutting edge to make it slide) is a thing of wonder. No other razor and blade manufacturer comes close. I’ll list who these are later (as Gillette only make blades for Gillette razors, not other brands). Sensor, Sensor Excel, Mach 3 and Fusion, Fusion ProGlide cartridges and blades are all the same in their main form and function, but will benefit from better technology completely invisible to the eye.
Until Sensor Excel launched, blades were ‘stacked’ in a cartridge with plastic spacers between them. This meant that they would easily clog with stubble, you’d need to tap them on the side of the basin to dislodge this, and they were annoying to use if you had a heavy stubble/growth. Remember, these things slice through tens of thousands of individual hairs, hundreds of times during a shave.
Gillette’s second killer patent was to develop a construction method we nickname ‘Angle Iron’ where a very thin razor blade (that does the cutting) was spot welded to a thicker structural piece of steel at an angle. This hugely freed up the spacing between the blades and increased what we call the ‘Wash Through Index’ (more on this later). Basically, this eliminated clogging. And because it was a super clever construction method, allowed blades to be held at the sides of the cartridges on individual plastic ‘springs’ so they could flex and follow the face during the shave. What we call ‘individual suspension’. No other cartridge had this innovation. But the real smart patent was exactly where and how the blades were spaced.
What’s called their exposure. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember Gillette TV ads from the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s – the heyday for Gillette in terms of their market growth. In short, they proclaimed ‘The First Blade Cuts Close, The Second Blade Closer and the Third Blade Closer Still!” But, how can this be? Well, it’s called Hysteresis – the phenomenon when changes in a physical property lags behind the effect causing it. The patented spacing and exposure of the two, then three blades in Gillette’s Sensor and Mach3 cartridges meant that when you shaved, the first blade cut ‘nearly but not quite’ through the first hair it came into contact with. In not quite cutting through it, it slightly tugged it up, ready for the second blade to catch it and pull it up slightly more, so the third blade would then cut it through, and the hair follicle would then drop back into the skin. How clever is that!!! This meant that the top of the cut hair retreated to slightly below, or on the skin surface, so post shaving you had an incredibly smooth shave, and the dreaded Five o’ Clock shadow could be avoided. Gillette used this fact hugely in advertising, which led to expensive and costly patent ‘wars’ between them and their competitors (primarily Schick/Wilkinson Sword) as to claims being made as to which cartridge shaved closest. In my opinion, the best razor made (almost to this day) is the Mach3, which exploded Gillettes’ market share, because it was such a good razor.
However, Hype set in alongside Hysteresis with Gillette in the early 2000’s (and for many years since) with the introduction of the worlds’ first 5 blade system razor cartridge, Fusion as a ‘f*** you’ to Schick’s introduction of Quattro – their first 4 blade razor in 2003). Whilst the first 3 blades delivered a closer shave, the subsequent additions of a fourth, fifth blade made little difference. I mean, how much hair could be left. This was the start of the razor blade arms race, that the Onion spoof magazine made great fun of. As well as more blades, we also had the introduction of battery powered vibrating razors from Gillette, the M3 Power – which basically helped Gillette sell at lot of Duracell batteries. This vibrating razor purportedly allowed a more comfortable, closer shave but was of course entirely a hyped sham (imagine driving a car around a track vibrating up and down!!!) and resulted in a class action law suit for Gillette in the USA, where people were able to get their money back due to false promises of a closer shave being found to be untrue. (Returning to the Wash Through Index or WTI, in 2004 I found out Gillette were attempting to patent this, which would have prevented competitors from developing cartridges that worked as well. At the time, we were in communication with Schick, I sent an email to the then President, Joseph Lynch ‘tipping him off’ and Schick objected to the patent in the USA, and it was dropped. #winning).
Whilst the first two patents were key, others were important too. If you have a Mach3 or Fusion razor, look at where it pivots compared with (until recently) competitor razors. It pivots at the base of the cartridge, which meant when you shaved, it was great at adapting to facial contours and as we said, allowed you to ‘paint’ your face when shaving. This made it not just comfortable, but also allowed the blades to work really well and allow a very elegant cartridge ejection mechanism. If you want to look at how badly hinge innovation has fared since, look no further than Schick/Wilkinson Sword’s recently launched 2018 HydroSense 5 razor, which as a ‘suspension’ system in the handle, as well as a swivel on the cartridge. This in my opinion is one of the worst designed, over-engineered and unnecessary razor handles launched in recent times!
Next we have the area of cartridge lubrication. As mentioned earlier in the article, you must shave with your stubble wetted thoroughly, and any technology that can help the cartridge slip effortlessly over sensitive skin is appreciated. The ‘LubraStrip’ that Gillette debuted on Sensor still exists today, although the core patents are long expired. When we launched King of Shaves Hyperglide in 2014, we had developed a superhydrophilic coating which covered the entire top of the cartridge – one of its many Unique Selling Points (USP’s) that made the inclusion of a LubraStrip superfluous. In fact, Gillette’s ProShield cartridge was a direct counter to our technological innovation.
- Finally, Tensioners & Edging Trimmers. You may have noticed on most system razor cartridges there is a small band of rubber at the bottom of the cartridge, just before the first blade. Often its got small ridges in it, running horizontally. This is called a skin pretensioner, and was originally featured on the Sensor cartridge, its function is to ‘stretch’ the skin slightly before the first blade cuts the hair (imagine if you’re being shaved by a barber using a DE blade, he or she use their fingers to ‘stretch’ the skin to ensure a close shave). Not all system cartridges have them, and for many years, there were Gillette patents around these, again which have largely lapsed. In addition, as people started to grow stubble, then full beards, the ability to ‘shape’ and ‘define’ these became important, Gillette again were the first to add a ‘single blade’ on the reverse of the cartridge, to allow shaping and ‘edging’. The Schick Hydro cartridges don’t have these as they would have infringed Gillette’s–actually licensed–intellectual property (IP) when launched, they have a cartridge that ‘flips’ backwards to allow more detailed shaping to occur.
The big issue for Gillette is that is has failed to file meaningful patents in the past 10-15 years, the killer patents are now out of time, there are only so many blades you can fit into a cartridge, and innovation is now very ‘cosmetic’ and delivers a very incremental shaving performance, if there is one at all. This is a major issue as competitors like us and others improve our offer. And of course, if the Skarp laser razor comes to the market (declaration: I am involved with and advise the Skarp team) then who would want to buy a steel blade razor when you could shave like Superman or Luke Skywalker?
I digress. Now, let’s talk about the runners and riders in this hyper-competitive sector, which in recent years has been disrupted by other market innovation (online shaving clubs & subscriptions) and entrants. What should you buy? Why? You’ll be surprised.
Gillette: In my opinion, the Mach3 (launched 1998) remains their best razor. Fusion has 2 extra blades (and a rear trimmer blade), Fusion ProGlide blades (launched in 2010) are thinner (and cost slightly increases) and the latest Fusion ProShield cartridges have lubrication areas on more of the cartridge (and cost even more). In the UK, some of these cartridges are nearing £4/cartridge!!!! The blade consistency of Gillette remains unrivalled, and if you buy Mach3 in bulk, the cost/shave is good.
Schick: Poor laggardly Schick continue to struggle in terms of the market share and cartridge performance. Quattro 4 is rarely seen now (these were 4 stacked blades that needed wires to stop skin being caught in them), they manufactured Hydro3 and Hydro5 more recently, 3 is widely regarded as a very poor razor (it’s actually used by some retailers as a private label brand), the Hydro5 cartridge is better, the top ‘lubrication reservoir’ pivots back so you can trim under the nose, and stops them infringing Gillette trimmer blade IP. Their latest HydroSense5 razor is not worth the money, and Schick continues to be the brand that substantively lags Gillette:
Dorco/Pace: Who are Dorco/Pace I hear you say? Well, the Dong Yang Razor Company (Dorco) are a privately owned South Korean manufacturer of system razors (and the ones you’ll use if you buy into Dollar Shave Club (DSC), now owned by global multi-national Unilever). The razors Dollar Shave Club sells are EXACTLY THE SAME as the ones sold by Dorco/Pace themselves online, and by other retailers under their private label brands. For example, in the UK the DSC ‘Executive’ is the same as the Sainsbury’s Supermarket private label razor. In 2017, Dorco introduced a 7 blade razor, which is only sold online. Don’t expect any of their competitors to go to an 8-blade razor, noting all my comments on hysteresis and still preferring the Mach3.
In the early 2000’s, Todd Greene launched Head Blade, a patented device to allow heads to be safely shaved. His Head Blades use Dorco/Pace cartridges, and have little ‘wheels’ to allow them to traverse the domed head in a safe, consistent manner. Interestingly, it is often difficult to shave your head with a conventional system razor, and in fact Harry’s actively say their razor should not be used to shave heads, due to the relatively aggressive blades & cartridge construct.
Word on the street is that ‘sooner or later’ Unilever will buy Edgewell, the company that owns Schick Wilkinson Sword, and secure their own vertical razor manufacturer (incredibly DSC/Unilever don’t own their own razor handles/blades manufacturers) but this is yet to happen.
Feintechnic: Who are Feintechnic I here you say? Well, they’re the German razor manufacturer that Harry’s, the East Coast shave club competitor to Dollar Shave Club bought in 2015. Harry’s, which has Tiger Global, a huge private equity fund as it’s major shareholder is Dollar Shave Club’s main competitor in the US and UK. Despite Harry’s being seen as a successful brand/business, it remains loss making, and the cartridges it uses are found in European and UK discount supermarkets at much cheaper prices. This in fact is where Feintechnic (Harry’s) make the profits that offset the losses. Until recently, Feintechnic supplied UK shaving club start-ups like Cornerstone (they terminated cartridge supply in 2017, with Cornerstone needing to make a brand new handle and source new cartridges from ASR – see next) and others, but word is that they are now keeping supply to themselves, as they also look to be bought by a competitor to Unilever and Gillette… (If you live in Europe, you may also have seen ‘BoldKing’ razors whose blades are made by Feintechnic too).
ASR/Personna: Who are ASR I here you say? Well, they are American Safety Razor, a private lable manufacturer bought by Edgewell to supply supermarkets. Their razor cartridges are not as good as their branded equivalents, but are used by other competing shave clubs to DSC and Harry’s in the UK and USA (After Harry’s terminated Cornerstone’s supply, they shifted to an ASR blade).
Bic: Bic, which until late 2017 only manufactured disposable razors, entered the shaving club market with its 5-blade cartridge & trimmer blade and system razor handle in Europe and the UK recently.
King of Shaves, which until 2015 had a cartridge and manufacturing partnership with Kai (a Japanese razor blade manufacturer) now has 2 system razors, a 4 and 5 blade as a result of partnerships with companies made since the Kai relationship ended. The best selling Azor and innovative superhydrophilic-coated Hyperglide razors (launched respectively in 2008 and 2014 are still available, but not widely available in the USA).
To summarize, here are my key takeaways for you if you’re looking for a close, comfortable and cost-efficient (system razor blade) shave:
If you live in the USA, you can get Dollar Shave Club razors and cartridges cheaper from Dorco/Pace Shave (although you won’t be part of the club, the humour and their other products).
If you want to “MAGA” and ‘Buy American’ then buy Gillette or Schick – as their cartridges are made in the USA, although the handles are made overseas.
If you buy into the shaving club scene, DSC beats Harry’s in terms of cartridge quality, and Harry’s cartridges (if you live in the UK) can be bought from your local discount European supermarket.
There are lots of small shaving subscription companies trying to ape DSC, it’s likely they won’t scale, and will fail or have their mailing lists bought in the next few years.
Razors that vibrate, pivot, hinge or otherwise try to aid shaving other than what the Mach3 achieves are pointless.
Most of the UK shaving clubs are using similar/same cartridges to each other. So, if you’re going to buy, then best buy on price, all else being equal.
Bic’s 5 blade cartridge is remarkably good and affordable…
Of course, I believe our King of Shaves Retro 4 and KoS 5 razors paired with our shaving gels, oils or serums deliver ‘The King of Shaves – The World’s Best Shave’.
There’s a lot more I could go into, but as they say, “If I told you, I’d have to kill you”. I’ve been a friend of Mantic59’s for many years now, I have a huge amount of respect for ‘slow shaving’ with a traditional DE razor, but if you have to reach for a system blade, hopefully what I’ve written above will help you make an informed decision!
Keep on shaving!
Founder, King of Shaves