What Does It Mean for Wet Shaving Artisans? When I heard that Strop Shoppe had recently closed its doors, I was moderately saddened, as one might be hearing of the passing of a fairly unexciting third cousin one knew superficially who lived in a faraway land. The brand had been more relevant in the earlier days of the wet shaving renaissance, but had become quiescent recently, sort of settling into what might be called the background noise of the artisanal soapmaking industry.
Yet it’s easy to forget how influential Strop Shoppe was in wet shaving. At least some of their scents were classic – “Baker Street” definitely, “Black Tie” & “Russian Tea” possibly. Strop Shoppe was also among the first artisans to offer multi-formula lineups, at one point offering three different variations (SE, LE, & Vegan.) Ye Olde Strope Shoppe also had a certain low-key aesthetic, offering sedate, reserved marketing strategies and conservative product designs that typified a sort of refined gentleman’s approach to shaving scent designs. (No gun oil or dirt here!). Like that dull distant relative in the other hemisphere, one assumed such staid consistent adequacy would lead to a long life, though not a very thrilling one. However, at less than four years of age, Strop Shoppe has left the coils of its corporate existence.
As the shaving hobby grows in popularity, the number of artisanal providers has also swelled to the point where a popular online vendor specializing in artisanal products now lists close to 600 soaps and creams from 70 different vendors. It’s clear that what happened to Strop Shoppe might well happen to other providers as well. What lessons can be learned from the decline of Strop Shoppe, from the heights of critical and popular acclaim to shutting its doors in less than four years of operations, for both other artisans and shave product users?
The Game Used To Be Afoot, Watson!
Baker Street was a popular soap, among the first offered by Strop Shoppe; the soap reviewed well (making first place on the Top 10 list of one of my predecessors at Sharpologist, and sold consistently well for Strop Shoppe right up until the end. How did this company and its first blockbuster come about?
Strop Shoppe was started in March of 2012 by an authentic biochemist in Norman, Oklahoma: one Kali McLernan, a woman who attained a BS in Biochem, and who was taking graduate level coursework in molecular biology and genetics at the time she founded the company. Her goal was to offer quality shaves using more natural and high performing ingredients than what was found in the mostly large corporate market of “goo in a can” that was the standard for most wet shavers back in 2012.
Strop Shoppe originally offered a vegan formula version of Baker Street, but a tallow version (was soon added and eventually a “Special Edition” (SE) version with dual butters (Shea and cocoa) was added. After a few years, the tallow version had the dual butters added, and that became the SE version, and then there eventually was a “Limited Edition”, LE, version featuring tallow, dual butters, and lanolin, though when that version first came out, it was called the Special Edition. (Confused yet? Hang on to that feeling, we’ll come back to it in a bit…)
What was so neat about Baker Street? It attempted to recreate the sort of Victorian era cologne that Mssrs. Holmes & Watson might have worn: juniper, bergamot, patchouli, and jasmine for a floral balancing note. It suggested both a gentleman’s club and an outdoorsy sort of feel at the same time. The scent was not overly complex, and some complained it was too mild. Yet at the time, when men’s shaving was either the blandly generic “Aqua Blast Mega Intense” junk sold by Gillette & Friends on the shelf or the alarmingly synthetic simulations of the Creighton’s product line (“Lime” with no lime essential oil, “Sandalwood” that does not smell like sandalwood, etc) a pleasant, sophisticated scent that used at least some natural ingredients was innovative.
The scent still stands up today, and, surprisingly, though I am among the first to criticize an odor for being too mild, I always found the scent of “Baker Street” and all the other Strop Shoppe products I have smelled to be perfectly sufficient. Not room clearing blasts of scent, hardly, but not mild effervescent scents that fade quickly either.
The technical performance was also quite good. The recent “SE” version (which I own) had these ingredients: Potassium Stearate, Potassium Tallowate, Glycerin, Castor Seed Oil, Coconut) Oil, Cocoa Seed Butter, Shea Butter, Sodium Stearate, Sodium Tallowate, Fragrance (artificial and / or essential oils). The soap gave easy lathering, smooth glide, very good cushion, and a decent, though not exceptional, post shave feel. 6 ounces of the SE soap was usually $20 in recent years, though the Strop Shoppe site often had 2 for 1 sales and other discounting offers on its soaps.
Expansion & Stagnation
As hinted above, the line evolved in some confusing directions, with multiple designations of the available formulas and transitions of one scent to different base formulas over time. Besides the confusing nomenclature, the pricing levels were also different, with 6 ounces of the lesser SE formula selling for $20, and 4 ounces of the superior LE formula (the SE formula plus lanolin) selling for $17. The higher quality more expensive formula was thus cheaper to own in absolute dollars, though the lesser SE formula cost less per ounce.
The line grew and grew, adding menthol to the mix (“Alpine Frost”), along with favorites like “Black Tie”, “Russian Tea”, “Teakwood”, a sequel to “Baker Street” called “London Morning” and “Barbershoppe”. (Is there some odd nostalgic effect connected with twin “p”s?) The line then added seasonal and short term releases (these were the latest and final iteration of the “LE” line) such as the leather and patchouli mix “Carnaby Street” and the charming “Peche”, a very interesting masculine gourmand scent (peach, ale, mint, cedar, and musk) that I liked and what will probably be the last product I ever buy from Strop Shoppe. Then they added the women’s line “Simply Beautiful” to serve the needs of the 217 women in North America who use DE blades and artisanal shave soap to smooth their legs intermittently.
The odd thing was that Strop Shoppe almost never cut soaps; they changed their formula designations (though the actual formulas stabilized into the SE & LE designations by 2015 and did not change the actual formulas after 2014) but all the original scents stayed in the lineup and were only joined by increasingly prolific stablemates. By early 2016, there were 14 SE scents, 3 LE scents, and 3 Simply Beautiful scents (which did not have different formulas from the SE, but only had more “feminine” scents (as defined by Strop Shoppe).
Along the way, the Strop Shoppe brand acquired some baggage. The early accusations of “mild” scents continued, and were never directly addressed by the scent designer(s) of Strop Shoppe in terms of changing the existing products or new designs; they (she?) apparently was never tempted to just load some new scent up with vetiver, civet, and Egyptian musk just to shut the naysayers up. Indeed, McLernan emphasized that any changes made to the line needed to be made gradually and moderately.
Also, the brand acquired an online reputation for poor customer service on orders sold through their website, with many buyers claiming anecdotally that they had been shorted on product or overcharged, with complaints taking a long time to resolve and often not getting any response at all unless the complainant persisted in being a squeaky wheel (the one order I placed with Strop Shoppe directly arrived quickly, accurately, and at the correct price).
Besides mild scents and anecdotal customer service complaints, Strop Shoppe also added a largish corporate staff (5 titled employees listed on their splash page, including a head of human resources, which suggests a larger staff). They eventually opened up a brick and mortar store in their home town, and that did not appear to do well, reverting to a “by appointment only” schedule after roughly a year of operation.
What did not change though, besides the fixed formulas, was the label and art design of the product. The labels continued to look like the sort of photoshopped thing found on some mud based moisturizer that Aunt Debbie whipped up in her backyard near the river, and the font and text resembled PBS documentary end credits from 1974. No colors, no graphics, no visual interest. If these did end up in your local shave emporium, you would walk right by them unless you knew exactly what you were looking for.
Also, the relative detachment of the Strop Shoppe founder and staff from social media was notable, As opposed to companies like Caties, Bufflehead, Barrister & Mann, and Chiseled Face, one heard little from Ms. McLernan, and when she did appear, the conversations were often remedial in nature (i.e. Strop Shoppe messed up somehow) and the tone was not exactly chatty or warm.
Finally, when the firm finally did attempt the vertical integration that is all the current rage in artisan products, they did so tentatively, late, and confusingly with aftershave scents based on their shave soaps, but with different titles; so the “Baker Street” scent was called “Formula 221B”, and the “Black Tie” scent was called “Debonair”.
So what are the takeaway lessons from all this? To summarize:
- Innovation and responsiveness to customer demands / complaints are needed. A few good scents 3 years ago will not guarantee you ongoing sales success in a saturated market. And if folks tell you your soaps smell too weak, even if you personally feel they are just fine, do something about it!
- Product design matters now. In 2012, your Grandpa Jack’s Olde Elixir style product design may not have mattered to your loyal customers because your competition was either non-existent or equally handicapped. Now with stuff like B&M Night Music setting new standards in graphic and text design in a modern and useful package, the stuff that looks like lavender body oil tubs from a farmer’s market is not going to attract many new customers.
- The soap base formula design playing field is becoming increasingly level. The innovative butter plus oil plus tallow and (gasp!) lanolin base of 2013 has become widely duplicated and clichéd in 2016. If your soap has exactly the same technical performance as 10 other companies, plus has weak scents, and awful packaging, you are going to have a hard time convincing either new or existing customers to spend $17 or $20 on your product.
- Slimmer, leaner product lines would seem to be prudent. Mickey Lee Soapworks has surprised many by adopting a basic 6 soap core lineup that will be supplemented by the very occasional special release, and bolstered by vertical integration of many other product types from the same scent family, like post shave treatments, bath soaps, even pomades and lip balms, etc. One no longer needs to have 15 or 20 soap scents available at once, if one ever did need so many options in this market.
- Largish staffs, overly articulated corporate structures, proprietary brick and mortar stores: of no help and considerable potential detriment as more and more companies enter the market.
- Multiple formula bases will not boost sales and will probably confuse buyers. Especially if there is no significant price point difference, and especially if you change nomenclature and do not precisely describe exactly what the advantage of your premium base is from the standard one. “Well, it has lanolin in it” is not exactly a game changer. And for goodness sake, be consistent in what you call formula X, use similar family line names when vertically integrating, and try to avoid offering the same scent in multiple bases.
- Obvious Case Study Lesson 1: good customer service may only be moderately appreciated and praised, but bad customer service, even on the anecdotal level, will spread far and wide.
- Obvious Case Study Lesson 2: you have to at least pretend to like your customers and that means you have to have a significant social media presence. Yes, you’ll endure a lot of insult and tedium, but that personal connection seems to be a key difference between success and failure in a saturated market and a sales environment still dominated by (possible illusory) social bonding between artisan and customers.
- 3 different scents for women shavers? Um, is there any research out there as to how many women buy more than one tub of artisanal shaving product per year? Aiming a scent towards women specifically means you will probably lose a goodly percentage of male buyers (male wet shavers do not seem to have the same tendencies towards unisex usage that male fragrance buffs do…) and these lost manly man sales will not be offset by sales to the limited women wet shaver market.
- If you can’t come up with bold and interesting scents on your own, hire someone. PannaCrema did it with Nuavia and ended up with some of the best smelling luxury shave cream on the market (which they are now slowly overpricing into oblivion, but that is another tale…). Smell sells in the modern artisan market, and is arguably even more important than price point as those seem to be slowly stabilizing.
For the Consumer:
- Expect to see more companies go away. My hunch is that Strop Shoppe is the tip of an iceberg, and many makers who are not totally competitive may also be leaving soon. Certain artisans popular a few years back are entering that same semi-dormant phase that Strop Shoppe was in shortly before its demise, and it would surprise me if this torpor is a sign of ongoing profitability and increasing market share.
- Expect to see a lot of product line cuts. Can PAA and Stirling really sustain several dozen scents in their lineup at once? Most other companies seem to be shooting for 10 scents or less available at any one time, accompanied by heavy vertical integration.
- Stockpile what you like before it goes away. This one is obvious; the question is how to predict which ones are going away? In general, Bay Rum (like the cockroach) will almost always survive, and stuff with vetiver as a main note tends to get the axe (the horror, the horror!). “Marine” and “fresh” scents are popular, gourmand scents (smells like food) less so. Like that vetiver grapefruit scent? Start buying and storing, dude!
- Communicate with your favored artisans and give them your feedback. Though Strop Shoppe was a poor example of this dynamic, most artisans are both friendly and responsive, and will not only appreciate your honest feedback but may actually change their product design and marketing sooner rather than later. If you want a given brand and / or product to be around for the long term, give them your constructive criticism and suggestions now. (Note though that “your latest offering smells like stale buttcrack juice” does not qualify as this sort of useful and diplomatic advice…)
So farewell Strop Shoppe! You did many things well, and it’s a shame not to be able to see what your next steps would have been to get back on course. My current supply of Baker Street, Peche, & Teakwood will probably last a good long while, and I will think moderately sad thoughts about your absence as I work my way through the rotation.
There are still limited amounts of some Strop Shoppe products available at various online vendors such as West Coast Shaving and Amazon so if you want to see what all the fuss was about, you have a little bit more of an opportunity to do so.
Since the first draft of this article, Knockout Shave & Tim’s Shave Soaps have both announced they are going out of business. I never used Knockout products and don’t know much about the company, but Tims’ passing is a surprise to me. I may discuss Tim and his lineup in a future article, but in the meantime, we wish all the founders and employees of these companies the best in their new ventures.