Razor-thick margins

Mass-backward: Luxury razors can turn out to be cheaper in the long run than mass brands, and specialty retailers are luring consumers away from five-blade cartridges.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photo: Italian Barber

· 4 min read

In 1901, King Camp Gillette, a bottle-cap salesman who lived in Brookline, Massachusetts, filed a patent application for a product that would end up revolutionizing the way men shaved. At the time, they shaved with straight razors, which along with finesse, required effort, since they needed to be stropped often to keep them sharp, or with the more modern safety razors of the time, whose blades were ensconced in a metal guard but still needed sharpening.

Gillette’s idea: a safety razor with a thin, disposable blade.

“[T]he material from which my blades are made need only be just thick enough to take a suitable edge,” Gillette wrote in the patent application, “and hence I am able to produce and sell my blades so cheaply that the user may buy them in quantities and throw them away when dull.”

  • Sales of the new razor and blades surged during World War I, when the US military contracted with Gillette to provide enlistees shaving kits.
  • Gillette’s patent for his safety razor expired in 1921, and the brand, acquired by Procter & Gamble in 2005, has for decades focused on selling razors with cartridges containing more and more blades.

Mass transit. In the last decade, traditional safety razors have become popular again, as men rediscover the pleasures of shaving like their great-grandfathers did, which also often includes a shaving brush and a puck of traditional shaving soap or shaving cream. Many of these razors are luxury items, with some going for as much as $499. But here’s the paradox: Many consumers end up in the luxury-razor category because of the long-term expense of name-brand disposables in drugstore aisles.

  • Gillette’s ProGlide razor-cartridge refills are $20 for a four-pack, or $5 each. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends replacing blades after five to seven shaves. For a daily shaver, that’s roughly one cartridge a week, adding up to an annual cost of more than $250.
  • Gillette also makes safety razor blades, with a list price of $19.49 for 100-pack, or 19 cents each. For a daily shaver, that’s an annual expense (52 x $0.19) of $9.88 on new blades, in addition to the cost of the razor.

“A majority of our customers come to us because they read about wet shaving on social media or because they want to save costs,” Joseph Abbatangelo, co-founder of The Italian Barber, a 12-year-old Toronto online retailer that specializes in razors and shaving products, told us. “A lot of people will find a safety razor because they’re sick of spending $3 or $4 for a replacement cartridge from Gillette.”

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Along with safety-razor brands like Merkur and Rockwell, Italian Barber has its own brand, RazoRock, which includes a model called Game Changer that sells DTC for $54.99. Like some other brands’ premium models, it promotes the fact that its components are milled from bars of stainless steel, rather than made in a mold from a softer metal and steel-plated. Abbatangelo said that many customers are inclined to think of items like razors as tools.

“[T]hey like the fact that they’re shaving with a precision tool because they’re a blue-collar worker and they work with tools all day long,” Abbatangelo said. “Or they’re golfers, and they use a $500 Scotty Cameron putter that’s milled in [a milling] machine.”

Taking it on the chin. In 2012, Dollar Shave Club famously (and virally) took on Gillette over the price of Gillette razors. But Brad Maggard, who that same year launched the online store Maggard Razors, said the brand’s messaging also benefited safety razors.

Dollar Shave Club “disrupted the whole market,” Maggard told us. “Dollar Shave Club went after Gillette purely based on price. And there was no real improvement in the shave, right? And so that’s the reason why, you know, everybody didn’t just move to Dollar Shave Club…Other people branched out and found traditional shaving.”

Maggard himself is a straight-razor enthusiast who restores them on a commission basis. And there are, to be sure, ultra-premium straight razors, with his store selling one model for $895 and two others for $759.

Mike Gilman, who owns Grooming Lounge, an online retailer of men’s personal-care products and upscale barbershop in McLean, Virginia, carries straight razors along with safety razors, but he says he generally recommends the latter.

People come into the McLean store and, “They say, ‘Oh, I really want a straight razor. I want to shave with that,’” Gilman told us. “And we will always be like, ‘I know you’ll feel like you’re in like a Spaghetti Western—but you’re gonna just tear your face off.’”

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