Fifteen years ago, I visited a barber shop in San Gimignano, where I treated myself to a proper, old-fashioned shave. The man wielding the cutthroat spent the entire time conducting a conversation with his waiting customers, apparently maintaining eye contact with them throughout. You can imagine that this was quite nerve wracking for me, although less so than if I had been in a more bloodthirsty part of Italy.
Shaving in the modern era is quite different. A couple of years ago, I wrote admiringly of the efforts by Procter & Gamble to increase the sales of its Gillette products in India. While price (which they irritatingly trimmed to a quarter of the price in South Africa) was a consideration, the biggest issues they faced were religious and cultural.
For the purposes of that piece I was able to observe the exercise objectively, from the perspective of a marketing practitioner. However, as a consumer, I find it impossible to be objective about Gillette.
I don’t buy into conspiracy theories. There is no cabal of elites pulling the marionette strings on what happens all around the world. However, when it comes to the cost of shaving, there is a pretty good equivalent, in the form of Gillette.
Let’s first get the shaving foam out of the way. As a child, I thought the foam was there to show my father where he still needed to shave. The adult me knows that the lubrication makes the shave more comfortable. However, there are various ways of achieving the same effect, with humble bath soap doing a perfectly good job. Legend has it that Einstein had the same view on the matter.
I think we’re all agreed that the safety razor was an advance on the old cutthroat, and that swivel head, multi-blade razors are a further improvement. But, for eff’s sake, do we really need five blades on the damn things?
This is the basis of Gillette’s bid for world shaving domination. Every few years they change the technology, which not only gives them an excuse to increase their prices, but also traps consumers because the blades are designed to fit specific generations of the razors.
While there may be special offers on the new razors (with a token number of blades), special offers on blades alone are rare. At most, they’ll toss in some shaving foam. And, with the level of shoplifting of blades, supermarkets now keep the blades behind a special counter. So, it gets harder to spend a few minutes deliberating your options before making a purchase.
A couple of months ago I switched to Schick. The blades are almost half the price, and give me a perfectly smooth shave. In my cupboard I also have two generations of Gillette razors, which enables me to take advantage of special offers, should they ever materialise. But, with just two brands on the shelves, price discounting seems a remote prospect.
The options in disposable razors appear to be greater, but apart from the sub-standard experiences I’ve had with disposables, I just can’t cope with the concept of dumping that much plastic.
Why don’t we have more competitors in this arena? Surely the technology isn’t that difficult to replicate. I suspect there are two main barriers to entry. The first comes in the form of the hundreds of millions of existing razors, for which men unthinkingly simply buy replacement blades every month, or two.
Retail distribution is factor number two. The new brand is going to be dead in the water without shelf space.
Finally, while extortionate, the price of blades isn’t high enough to incite revolution amongst consumers. A monthly cost of something between R20 and R50 is irritating, but not a significant enough chunk of anyone’s household budget.
So, unless a bold entrepreneur leaps into the market, we’re stuck with the two brands.
(Apologies to women; I know that we men aren’t the only customers, but most of us shave every day. While we have the choice of not shaving (like you), waxing our faces is not an option. Ouch!)
I’ve subsequently discovered exactly the “bold entrepreneur” I referred to above. Their deal is based upon 4 blades per month, which is faster than I use them, but I can’t fail to be impressed by their sales pitch. Check out this video they posted on YouTube: