IN the past few weeks, I've often chuckled to myself as a friend on Facebook complains about the price of quality razor blades. The weak exchange rate has apparently made it even worse.
I view shaving as a basic human necessity, just a half step above our need for clean water. I strongly believe a government should intervene when its citizens no longer have access to affordable quality shaving products.
When it comes to good shaving products, there is a consensus that blades and cream cost much more than one would expect. Every person has an innate sense of what essential products should cost. When I have to pay more than R20 for a regular loaf of brown bread, more than R15 for a litre of fresh milk or R22 for a can of tomatoes, I wonder if someone in the supply chain is using my money to finance their lover's latest Italian fashion statement.
The issue of the cost of blades and aerosol shaving cream so drastically interfered with the zen of my morning shaving ritual a few years ago that I completely detached myself from the conspiracy of the international industrial complex against the common shaver.
I mean, shaving in the morning is a time when your thoughts should be free to drift about your youngest's triumphant piano solo at the eisteddfod, the prospect of a caravan holiday in Buffelsbaai and this afternoon's pub lunch with your buddies at a Portuguese restaurant in a dodgy part of town. Shaving as a ritual borders on meditation.
No exemplary citizen should be reminded of their cash flow challenges in the morning by feeling their wallet getting lighter with every stroke.
For me, it was a real problem because I have a lot of real estate to clear — in addition to my beard, I also shave my entire head.
Onward to the past!
So, a couple of years ago, I decided to experiment by going back to a much earlier level of technology: the first generation of the so-called safety razor — let's call it the traditional razor. I'm referring to the classic flat razor blade with two cutting edges that's installed in a handle. It first appeared in 1901.
It's called a safety razor because it significantly reduced the risk of cutting oneself. Before that, people still shaved with an old-fashioned straight razor, which folded like a pocket knife into a wooden handle. Men used to show up at the breakfast table with a neck full of bloody bits of cloth or tissue.
The first replaceable plastic-head or cartridge razor blades appeared in the early 1970s — this is the second-generation safety razor. The world still uses this technology. Before that, everyone used flat razor blades.
Traditional safety razors (the flat ones) are still readily available, probably because many South Africans can't afford the cartridge or disposable razors (the same technology as the cartridge type). You can walk into Clicks and buy a Lion-branded handle (the same as matchsticks) and five flat blades for only R37.
Because it was the first traditional razor I could easily get my hands on, I started with the Lion. Initially, I cut myself a few times, but I quickly became proficient. However, the blades became noticeably dull very quickly — I could shave only four times with one blade and quickly got better quality blades that lasted longer.
Thanks to the hipster trend that hit the world, I was able to get an old-fashioned shaving brush from The Body Shop brand at Clicks. And I found a tin of shaving soap with a glycerin base from a manufacturer in Plettenberg Bay — Reitzer's Perfect Shave shaving soap. It lasted me for over a year.
After struggling with the Lion razor for about six months, I realised you can buy a good quality handle for about R350 that will last you the rest of your life, and with it you can adjust the angle at which the blade touches your skin. If you handle it carefully, the chance of cutting yourself is slim.
In the table below, I've done a basic cost comparison between the traditional shaving method and the contemporary method, and the difference is, to say the least, monumental. The cheapest way to shave yourself with the traditional method (using shaving soap with a brush) works out to R0.96 per day, according to my calculations. In contrast, the cheapest way to shave yourself with the new method (and I haven't included Bic's sad disposable razors in this) comes to R4.35 (with aerosol shaving foam). The most expensive way to shave yourself with old-style high-quality blades works out to R1.87 per day, compared to the most expensive new method at R5.35 (with gel from a can).
The whole exercise made me think again about the nature of capitalism. I can't imagine a world where people's entrepreneurial spirit is suppressed. History has real examples, and they're frightening.
On the other hand, one becomes increasingly aware of the gap that is growing between large companies, their products and the needs of ordinary people. Also, the collusion between multinational corporations that are more powerful than many governments is evident.
It's clear that many of the technological improvements made by the research and development departments of big companies have nothing to do with providing value to the consumer. In many cases, they're simply about coming up with something new that the competition doesn't have. It's also about giving the marketing department something to shout about: New! Improved! Fantastic!
Shaving razor companies are excellent examples of this. The razor with the replaceable head we use these days has already undergone more technological improvements than Nasa's entire Apollo programme. It started with a single blade in the early 1970s, which soon became two blades, and eventually, somewhere in the 1980s, three.
The idea behind the multi-blade head is that the razor should glide more easily through tough beard hair, but also that the first blade lifts the hair out of the follicle and the second and third blades cut it so close that it retreats into the follicle below the skin surface, taking longer to grow out. I'm sure everyone above a certain age remembers the TV advertisement that illustrated this action with animated graphics.
Early on, the head could already pivot on the handle to follow the contours of the jawline as if the razor had suspension. One year, a white strip was added, supposed to be an extra lubricant on the skin. In another year, a strip of a different colour was added, which was another chemical lubricant.
Somewhere in the 1980s, you could get a blade head with a small button that, when pressed, would eject a narrow strip between each pair of blades to push out the stubble stuck between the blades. This saved the shaver the trouble of rinsing out the stubble and shaving cream themselves.
On some razors, you also get a wear indicator — a strip that helps those who can't feel when a blade is dull.
In other years, a flexible head was introduced, with blades that can bend to follow the contours of your face. With a head that can pivot and bend, razors can now follow the contours on the latitudes and longitudes of your cheeks without your hand having to make any adjustments.
At one point, Gillette even introduced a razor head with heated blades. It's difficult to say what advantages the heating provided, but the key point is that the competition didn't have it.
The problem is that in every year when the blade engineers in the basement laboratories of Gillette, Wilkinson Sword and Schick couldn't come up with a new idea, they simply added another blade to the head of the razor. There are razor heads now with seven blades. As my friend Tom once said, “One day there will be so many blades on the head of a razor that all you'll have to do is move your hand about one centimetre — grrrrrts — and your whole face is shaved."
More expensive but worse
The shaving experience undoubtedly improved in the early years of these developments, but the enhanced experience plateaued decades ago, despite annual “breakthroughs". However, the costs of these fancy razors continued to rise disproportionately. I see razor companies have recently started catering more to middle- and lower-middle-income groups by offering disposable options and replacement heads with ridiculously few blades (like only two or three).
The industry probably came under pressure from disruptors like Dollar Shave Club, founded by Mark Levine and Michael Dubin, two young guys who met at a party in 2008 and discussed the terrible and absurd experience of buying and using razors. They decided to start an online business that provides affordable razors to ordinary people in their homes on a subscription basis. The basic idea was that you pay $1 for an entire month's supply of good-quality razor blades, instead of the prevailing cost of between $6 and $9 at the time.
Disruption was like gospel in the business world around 2010. It usually meant a few young upstarts disrupting established industries with the help of apps and the internet, or any other technology the old guard couldn't or wouldn't figure out. Companies such as Uber, Amazon, Tesla and Google are excellent examples, with Apple probably being the world's oldest disruptor.
Guys like Dollar Shave Club followed a simple formula: they could disrupt the industry thanks to their ability to market their product directly to customers via the internet, without the overhead costs of complex supply chains, and thanks to access to cheap and efficient postal services. They also went directly to manufacturers in China to buy their product, in many cases from the same suppliers as those of the large companies they challenged.
The big secret, however, was the resonance they found with younger consumers who, just like them, were sick and tired of the garbage big companies were dishing out and the bad experience around shaving. The business — essentially a website and a store — was launched in March 2012 with a YouTube video that spread like wildfire on the internet because it's probably one of the best video advertisements yet. It's basically a funny and honest speech by Mike Dubin to his potential customers. Watch it here:
But unfortunately, just like the hippies who started Apple and Microsoft, who eventually became billionaires who pushed other companies into a can and dominated the market, Dollar Shave Club has also become part of the establishment. Its market share in the US has grown to just under 10% (about $30 billion) and accordingly, Gillette's market share has fallen from 70% to below 50% over the past decade.
You can't join Dollar Shave Club in South Africa but there's a copycat called The Shave Union. I enthusiastically joined about four years ago but didn't read the fine print properly, and when they started debiting my account I realised it was still much more expensive than using traditional flat safety blades.
Another industry that follows a similar model to the razor industry is that of computer printers. You buy a device — the printer — and like a razor handle, it has a cartridge that needs to be replaced regularly. We sat with a Canon printer and had to replace the ink cartridge more than once a year at a cost that grated on me every time. It felt like blatant exploitation.
I finally replaced my printer and came across Epson's EcoTank, a printer where you buy the ink in a large bottle and pour it in, just as you would expect something to work in the old days. Four years ago, I received two large bottles of black ink with the printer, and although we print every day, the second bottle is still unopened in my top drawer.
There is now the problem that Epson has downloaded about eight programs onto my computer to operate the printer. They are the most prima donna-like programs in the history of software and want to upgrade daily and obtain permissions for various incomprehensible actions. But complaining about the constant updating and improving of software on computers and smartphones is a task for another day.
For now, I simply enjoy my morning shave, which has become a bit more of a ritual again. You have to concentrate more with a razor that doesn't do everything for you. And if I haven't convinced you, just think about how incredibly detrimental the impact of the disposable razor industry is to the environment. It uses a lot of resources, and the plastic cartridges and disposable razors are truly not things you can recycle.
♦ VWB ♦
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