Most people assume traditional safety razors are obsolete, difficult to use, and provide inferior shaves relative to modern, multi-blade cartridge razors. This is not surprising considering that such razors are no longer widely available—and haven’t been for some time. But what isn’t obvious is that these products were intentionally abandoned by their primary manufactures precisely because they presented such a compelling alternative to their higher profit margin modern razors. These manufacturers may indicate otherwise, but the circumstantial evidence makes a compelling case that the disappearance of safety razors has a lot less to do with innovation, and a lot more to do with a profit-grab along the lines of the “Light-Bulb Conspiracy” of the 1920’s & ’30s (which kept longer lasting bulbs off store shelves).
Because the recent growth of traditional wet-shaving has very much been fueled by a grassroots, internet-enabled groundswell of enthusiasm from everyday people, we tapped famed documentary filmmaker Dylan Avery to direct and narrate our own mini-documentary to tell the story. Best known for the 9/11 conspiracy documentary Loose Change—which is estimated to have been viewed over 100 million times and been appropriately labeled “The Gone with the Wind of Conspiracy” by Alec Baldwin—we couldn’t ask for a better partner in attempting to popularize our own, much less controversial, yet still anti-establishment narrative.
The Cartridge Razor: Savior of Profit Margins
It’s no secret that by the 1960’s all the most crucial patents related to safety razors had long expired and that the business had become essentially commoditized—with small profit margins that were only expected to drop further. In such an environment, it’s not exactly surprising that manufacturers in the space would be interested in a more profitable substitute. Luckily for them, the development of the multi-blade cartridge razor provided just such an opportunity. Although they would have you believe this development was an innovation on par with the original safety razor, the true value-added by the cartridge razor pales in comparison.
While both products were built around a planned obsolescence revenue model—King Gillette’s safety razor blades were the original disposable alternative to a barber-style straight razor— there is no question that his ingenious concept (which also proved especially difficult to realize) created real value for consumers. Indeed, for less overall cost, shavers could now avoid the arduous task of maintaining their blade and/or traveling to a barber—and get better shaves too. This is no small accomplishment, and it changed the lives of many for the better.
Conversely, with Gillette’s vaunted second act—the introduction of cartridge razors in 1971—any new value created stayed almost exclusively in-house. This is because the true innovation of such razors was not really in improving the shaving experience, but in getting consumers to pay more for one that was in many ways inferior.
Multi-Blade Razors Cause More Irritation and Ingrown Hairs
Have you ever noticed that there were no “sensitive skin” or any type of specialized post-shave skin care products prior to the introduction of cartridge razors? Could this be because the need for such treatments didn’t exist when single blade shaving was the norm? Once you realize how fundamentally different the underlying mechanics of multi-blade shaving are from single-blade shaving, you may not find that so surprising.
Upon the release of the Trac II, the first multi-blade cartridge razor, Gillette coined the term “hysteresis” to describe the effects of using multi-blade razors on hair follicles. Although they like to imply they designed multi-blade razors specifically to initiate the hysteresis effect, considering all of its downsides, it seems far more likely they discovered the phenomenon after the fact and simply glammed it up as a benefit for marketing purposes. Here’s their explanation of the process:
Sounds great, right? But what they fail to mention is that because hysteresis unavoidably leaves the tips of newly shaved whiskers below the surface of your skin, they won’t necessarily grow back precisely through the original opening. So although a shave with a multi-blade razor may feel especially smooth at first, as the hairs grow back over the next few hours, irritation and in-grown hairs are a natural consequence. Considering this, along with the fact that running multiple blades over your skin is obviously more irritating than just one, it’s no surprise that so many people now need skin treatment products. But never fear, the same companies selling you their cartridge razors are more than happy to sell you additional products to solve the problems they cause.
But that’s not the only drawback to using multi-blade cartridge razors.
Cartridge Razor Shaving Costs More
The chart below illustrates the approximate starting and annual costs of safety razor versus cartridge razor shaving. In this scenario, the annual savings from safety razor shaving cover the additional startup costs in less than two years—and then run nearly 50% less annually going forward.
Once we consider the higher profit margins on these cartridge razors, then multiply the dollars spent on them annually times the massive number of global shavers, the appeal of these products to the executive suite becomes clear, regardless of any factors related to actual shaving. But it’s a not a technical or financial consideration that makes for the most compelling drawback to using cartridge razors. It’s an emotional one.
Using a Cartridge Razor is a Chore
The one undisputed benefit of cartridge razors over safety razors it that they are easier to use. But much like a Toyota is easier to use than a Lamborghini, the comparison misses the point. This is because to make a Lamborghini easy to use would be to take away a crucial component of what makes it special. Being somewhat difficult to use or master is not a drawback, it’s an integral part of the experience.
In much the same way, although cartridge razors have made shaving easier, they have also managed to emasculate a once quintessentially masculine experience. By eliminating the need for shaving technique, so too goes the special bit of personal satisfaction that comes with mastery and the cherished passing of this knowledge from father to son. To replace these experiences with the mindless chore of dragging a cartridge across one’s face, and then have to pay more for the opportunity, is really something approaching tragedy. God help us all if someday Gillette devises a way to make sex easier too.
This point is further illustrated by the very existence of the multitude of online shaving forums and groups, where the resoundingly popular opinion is that traditional wet-shaving is a far better alternative to modern razors. To most people, the idea that others would voluntarily elect to devote a portion of their free time to the pursuit of the perfect shave may seem ridiculous. But members of this niche have found for themselves how enjoyable shaving can be, often describing it as a meditative, or zen-like, experience. When considered from that perspective, who can blame them for wanting to discuss how they managed to transform a chore into one of the highlights of their day?
The “New Deal” in Shaving
So it seems the real value proposition of multi-blade cartridge razors is eliminating the learning curve required of traditional shaving in exchange for more money, more waste, and reducing your shave routine to a mindless chore. That may be a welcome exchange for some, but it still seems doubtful that even the most optimistic Gillette executives could have anticipated cartridge razors would eventually supplant safety razors entirely.
Even so, they were clearly committed to the path as it was obvious that offering a unique new shaving solution that featured more recurring revenue, higher profit margins, and the opportunity to operate under patent protection deserved their full efforts. Not to mention that in the early 1970’s, “plastic” was unquestionably the trend du jour. This commitment is made clear by the fact that Gillette reduced the portion of their advertising budget devoted to their iconic safety razors by over 75% in the very first year of the release of the Trac II (source: The Case Research Journal. Dr. Lew Brown).
Looking back, it’s clear that this opportunistic pivot toward plastic was a massive success, and the world’s appetite for something new was proven near-insatiable. Indeed, Gillette and others have gone back to this same strategy, just as successfully, many times since. For this reason, it’s difficult to blame these companies for eliminating safety razors from their product portfolios. The financial incentive to do so is just too great once it’s realized that every purchase of a safety razor cannibalizes the larger potential profits to be made from their cartridge razors. But what it does illustrate, with little room for doubt, is that the primary interest of these companies is in expanding their own bottom line, not really in providing the best shave possible for their customers. Put in that context, we should all feel a bit silly for ever believing otherwise.
Try Traditional Wet Shaving for Yourself
Fine Accoutrements ignited a craft aftershave revolution with the launch of Fine Classic After Shave and has subsequently been devoted to creating the best performing wet-shaving products available.
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