With the unfortunate closure announcements of several wet shaving focused brick and mortar wet shaving stores in North America, including as Old Town Shaving [Pasadena, California] and MenEssentials [Toronto, Ontario], I can’t help but feel as though the wet shaving resurgence is peaking.
Brick & Mortar
These brick and mortar stores have been a proverbial Shave Mecca to wet shavers at all levels. They not only serve as a place for new wet shavers to begin their journey, but also for wet shaving enthusiasts to add to their collections. I can personally attest to how special starting my wet shaving journey in a store was, as I purchased my first safety razor at the MenEssentials retail store back in 2013. This was a truly amazing and formative moment for me. The closure of these stores is quite upsetting for many, as they hold such a special place in many people’s hearts.
Like any niche market, there are highs and lows. During the highs, the forums, subreddits and private Facebook special interest groups are chalk full of posts, mail call photos and shave of the day photos. In the low times, those same groups are quieter and in various neighborhoods some privately owned retail wet shaving stores are closing. These store closures further reiterate that there are changes happening in the marketplace.
Competing in retail is difficult at the best of times, let alone in an ultra-niche market such as traditional wet shaving. Single blade shaving represents a small portion of the market compared to conventional hair removal systems such as cartridges and electric razors. Increased lease/rent, staffing costs and the many other overhead costs of having a retail store are just a few of the challenges many retail businesses face.
This is why most brick and mortar stores that specialize in wet shaving gear often also have an online store to achieve their top-line revenue goals. This additional revenue segment allows regional, national and sometimes even international clients to transact with them. This additional sales volume also allows some retailers to purchase inventory in bulk, which can sometimes slightly reduce their shipping costs.
Razor thin Margins
While one might think there are healthy profit margins to be made at the retail level, they have been historically slipping over the past few years. This margin erosion is due to the change in the competitive landscape, availability of products and the commoditization of certain brands.
With eroding margins, retail wet shaving stores have to be very strategic on offering value-added services and experiences to ensure people still frequent their establishments. These include meetups, educational classes and the hosting of other community events. These value-added customer touch points can also help to justify for increased prices at the store level.
Some retailers have even branched out into carrying other lifestyle goods such as wallets, barware and other products. These peripheral add-on items are a great way for them to maximize the “share of the wallet” or “share of the shave” as I like to say, for each purchase and maximize the transactional value of each customer.
The Change in Buying Behaviors
For some retail customers, it’s simply much easier to order their goods online and not have to venture out to purchase products locally. Online stores often have lower operating costs, allowing them to be more competitive on pricing. This pricing disparity also adds to the pressure on retail brick and mortar stores.
On the other hand, some retail clients happily pay a bit more for a showroom experience and the privilege of smelling the soaps, holding the razors and chatting one-on-one with an expert at a retail store. I personally feel that some buyers are shifting away from purchasing online, back to locally owned stores or boutiques. My observation is that more people are getting overwhelmed with mediocre online shopping experiences.
The problem is that there are too many websites, all proclaiming expert status. Some buyers are exhausted with combing thorough reviews and trying to get to an informed and educated decision on a product. They sometimes prefer to talk to a local expert to help them and consultatively sell them on a solution to solve their problem. For these reasons, I believe the person to person [P2P] businesses will ultimately win the long game, but this will take time.
How do the Soap Makers Contribute?
On the artisan soap maker’s side, many “indie” brands have perfected the art of offering limited time runs or seasonal offerings of shaving soaps, cream, etc. This not only adds some urgency, but an element of scarcity, which caters to those enthusiasts that love collecting exclusive, rare and hard to get products. Retailers that have access to these limited run products can also benefit in the built-up demand, as these products serve as a reason for many people to visit their stores.
This model may be changing a bit with the recent announcement from Tallow + Steel, a very popular brand out of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. They will no longer be offering their products on a wholesale level, as commented on their Instagram post. Their decision to sell only direct to customer via their website was to circumvent a price increase due to the rising costs of ingredients, which makes good sense for their brand. This reduced access to these limited run products for retail establishments also eliminates an opportunity to get people into retail stores.
What’s in Store for the Future?
I have observed that some wet shaving focused retail stores are thriving in this potential peaking of the market, such as Kent of Inglewood here in Canada. I believe their success is attributed to many things, but one observation I have noticed is that their offerings are curated to the new wet shaver and the consistent wet shaver. I define the consistent wet shaver as someone who prefers legacy brands that are always available, have a long-standing reputation and are tried and true. I have also noticed that the stores that are winning in the retail game are also well positioned online and their stores are in areas with larger population density or tourism, which helps support sales goals.
So What About Small Markets?
So what if you are in an area with a small population and virtually no tourism? My local market [Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada] was quite under-served and does not have a big enough population or much tourism to support a dedicated store [271,000 people as of 2017]. This challenge allowed me to solve the problem a bit differently, which is why I decided to start my business, Shave Valet – Mobile Wet Shaving Supplies. [Ed. note: closed in Feb, 2019, because Shahan moved from Saskatoon.]
I don’t have a store, nor can you purchase from me online. Customers email or call me to start the order process and then I deliver it to them. I carry a limited inventory, but try to cover all ends of the wet shaving spectrum. I offer starter kits, value-based products, legacy brands all the way up to what some consider the holy grail of shaving soap, Martin de Candre.
My main focus is connecting with and activating new wet shavers. My Introduction to Wet Shaving Classes and post-sale mentorship are my way of providing value-added experiences beyond the transaction. Another competitive advantage is my free local delivery to homes and businesses, where I can often deliver orders within day or the following day. It’s not a perfect business and has some challenges. Although this will likely always be a passion project and won’t replace my day job, we continue to slowly grow every day.
There are also a few other mobile wet shaving supply businesses that are growing here in Canada such as Calgary Straight Razor Shaving. The proprietor, Ralph focuses on selling through various markets and pop-up shows in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His offerings are exclusively focused on the Henri et Victoria brand, which I would argue to be Canada’s fastest growing Artisan Wet Shaving and Grooming brand.
It’s clear that the market may have peaked a bit and we may see more store closures or even consolidation, but hopefully not. I feel retail stores offer a very important experiential component and community element. We may see more mobile wet shaving businesses pop-up to fill gaps in certain markets where stores aren’t feasible. Ideally everyone would have local accesses to quality wet shaving products, but that is often regulated by the supply and demand of the market.