by Gary North
King Gillette was one of the greatest entrepreneurs in history. He saw an opportunity, and he took it.
When he introduced the well-named safety razor in 1903, he presented to the average man a way to reduce the learning curve for becoming a self-shaver. He also gave to his fellow men a way to cut back on the time (high) and expense (high) of a shave by a barber.
Gillette understood a fundamental marketing principle: The profit is in repeat sales. The main cost is generating the initial sale. After the seller gains the buyer's trust, repeat sales are far less expensive. This is the principle of the back end, and it is basic to most businesses.
He sold his razors cheap — below cost, we are told — in order to sell blades at a profit. He used price competition to create demand for a totally new product. This enabled him to gain market share rapidly.
He was selling to the middle class initially. He was not selling to the rich. Soon, he was selling to the poor.
By 1916, the beard was out of favor. The last major-party candidate for President who wore a beard was Charles Evans Hughes. Wilson defeated him in 1916.
A huge breakthrough for the company was the policy of the Army in World War I to issue a Gillette razor to every soldier. That was 3.5 million razors.
To say that Gillette changed the world is not saying too much. His price-competitive marketing strategy made shaving so inexpensive that the average Joe could afford it. All over the world, beards disappeared.
So, by the way, did underarm hair for women. But that was not Gillette's doing. That was the Wilkinson razor company's doing. That advertising campaign began in 1915, following a Harper's Bazaar article that featured a photograph of a woman in a sleeveless dress. It is less likely that this fashion trend would have been attempted by a straight-razor company, for the straight razor's association with masculinity was obvious, and remains so.
THE WORST OF ALL CONDITIONS
I have been cursed with three biological features that are at cross purposes: a fast-growing thick beard, sensitive skin, and a chin with small folds. So, when I wore a beard, briefly, in 1980, my beard pulled against my skin when I put my head on a pillow, and pulled at my skin annoyingly. I never got used to this.
When I shave exclusively with an electric razor, it doesn't cut short enough to prevent the appearance of a Nixon-like beard before the end of the day. Also, the whirring blades tend to irritate my skin after a few days.
When I shave with a standard safety razor, the folds of my chinny-chin chin protect whiskers from the blade. If I go after them, I risk nicking myself.
I remember seeing an interview with Tom Paxton, the folk singer. He hypothesized that whiskers learn how to evade whatever system you use against them.
Because I prefer to spend my time in front of a computer screen rather than a mirror, my goals for shaving are simple: (1) get finished fast; (2) avoid leaving whiskers behind; (3) avoid cuts; (4) avoid skin irritation; (5) get my beard short enough so one shave a day does the job.
Only secondarily is the money cost per shave relevant. The time cost per shave is far more important to me. I am long on money and short on time. Or, as an economist would waste your time saying, the marginal cost of my time is higher than the marginal cost of my money, other things being equal.
If I wanted elaborate ritual, I would join the Greek Orthodox Church.
MY SHAVING HERITAGE
I knew from age four or five what my solution would not be: a straight razor. I watched my grandfather sharpen his razor on a long piece of leather called a strop, and then shave his face. My father told me that his father could shave on a moving train. My father, who celebrates his 89th birthday today, used a straight razor briefly, but switched to a safety razor, as he says, "to keep from looking like hamberger." He used a Gillette safety razor.
When I was about 13, I had to start shaving daily. At first, I got a Remington electric razor, but it irritated my skin and did not shave close enough. So, I started using Gillette blue blades. They were awful. They were good for maybe three shaves. They easily cut me.
In 1957, Gillette introduced a multi-setting razor that let you adjust for the thickness of your beard. I needed the maximum setting.
In 1960 came Gillette's super blue blade. It had a silicon coating. It cut better than the blue blade, but it wore out fast, and it nicked me more often if I failed to replace it.
The next year, Wilkinson introduced the first coated stainless steel blade. I started using it. It lasted longer than a super blue blade. Its market share grew rapidly at the expense of Gillette.
Gillette countered in 1963 with its own stainless blade. That blade soon replaced the older blue blades in popularity. I switched back to Gillette.
In 1971 came Gillette's two-edge blade. It was a major improvement. It lasted longer, nicked less often, and was easy to replace. Nothing since then has made more than marginal improvements.
Somewhere along the line, I bought a Norelco twin blade electric. It had circular spinning blades. It was not so irritating as my old Remington. It cut fairly well. But I had to use it twice a day to keep really clean shaven.
What I did not know at the time was that the Norelco was the North American outlet of Holland's Philips Company. I also did not know until decades later that the company's two founders were the grandsons of Lion Philips, who was Karl Marx's uncle. He despised his nephew. Had I known this, I would have bought a Norelco earlier.
By my college years, I used a stainless blade to do the heavy cutting, and a Norelco to do the secondary shaving. The Norelco was fine for touch-up. It did not irritate my skin, and I did not risk nicking myself in an attempt to get the last few recalcitrant whiskers.
MY SYSTEM TODAY
The key to a clean shave, we are told, is a hot towel. I disagree. The key to a clean shave is oil-free skin.
I am a shower man. I like long, hot showers. I have extremely oily hair. In the shower, I use shampoo to wash my hair twice. Each time, I also wash my face. This removes most of the oil from my skin and whiskers.
When I get out of the shower, I wrap a towel around my waist — habit — and go to the sink. I apply the cheapest shaving gel I can find, which is Barbasol. Barbasol shaving products are great because the company spends almost nothing on advertising. It uses price competition to gain market share. That's my kind of company.
I use a Gillette three-edge blade. I change it every two weeks, I guess. I once got one that lasted a month. This is cheap.
When I'm finished, if I plan to go out that day, I use my three-head Norelco to buzz over my chin and around my mouth. I don't want to re-lather and shave again. The second razor shave is high risk. I want to avoid nicks.
The entire procedure takes about two minutes. As for shaving lotion, I use rubbing alcohol, which also serves as an effective, non-irritating deodorant. Cheap.
I have been doing this for 35 years. I am not about to re-learn shaving. Shaving for me is not a ritual. It's a necessity. The aesthetics of shaving are lost on me. Call me a philistine, except the Philistines did not shave.
April 22, 2006
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