Monday, July 07, 2008

Cut-throat marketing.

Perhaps you've wondered, as I have, where the end-game may be in the loopy and ongoing bout of one-upmanship that holds razor manufacturers in its vice-grip. (I do not claim to be the first to wonder. See what Gizmodo had to say, riffing on an article in The Economist.) How many blades is enough? Too many? First we had the twin-blade revolution (Trac II), then we marched on to three blades (Mach-3 etc.), then four (Quattro etc.)...and now some of these gizmos look like embryonic miniblinds. (Here's a little background on Gillette's product progression.) As it is, I can't imagine what a man of my father's generation would make of all this—and yet the trend shows no signs of abating. These days, if you shave your face with a single-bladed razor, you feel like that vaguely ominous-looking old guy in the small cottage just outside town who still does his front lawn with a push mower.

The real kicker is, we've reached the point in shaving evolution where function takes a back seat to form. If you're a man who likes his face smooth and clean-shaven (or whose honey does), you know what I'm talking about. The bigger and bulkier today's "shaving systems" become, the more unwieldy they are to maneuver around the angles of one's facial contours. For example, 'round about the time Gillette trotted out Mach-3 (and my ever-helpful wife began buying them for me), I began to notice how much more difficult it got to effectively shave the tiny mustache hairs directly below my nose. You just couldn't get the damn contraption in there anymore and still leave yourself room for the distance of travel necessary to cut the uppermost hairs; I had to keep a single-blade razor around for such tasks. Similarly, I defy anyone to execute a nice, straight, one-pass sideburn cut using a razor above the two-blade level. You usually end up cutting about a half-inch's worth of hair north of where you intended to. And unevenly at that.

The Economist hit the blade right on the edge when it noted, "It took a leisurely 70 years after King Gillette invented the safety razor for someone to come up with the idea that twin blades might be—or, at least sell—better" (emphasis added). This phenomenon is sales-driven, not functionality-driven. As is true of more than a few products on the market today, five-blade razors exist because people will buy them. What such devices add in utility (if anything) is far less important than what they offer in "cachet," or the buyer's belief that the products are simply the Clear Next Step In Shaving and thus a necessary component of any proper gentleman's personal-hygiene arsenal.

This may sound innocent enough, especially when you're talking about products that top out at $10 or $12. But think about it: Why should there be products that, in essence, exist solely to create a marketplace niche for which there was no preexisting need? If a single-blade razor shaves as well as (or better than) its five-blade counterpart
for less than half the pricethen why should anyone even consider buying the five-blade razor? Ergo, why should there be a five-blade razor? Nor does the discussion end there, because an interesting thing happens along the way: Typically, the mere existence of the "better" product exerts an incremental upward force on the prices of many or all of the products beneath it. It does this by creating an artificial ceiling from which "lesser" versions of that same product are discounted. Look at it this way: If there were no Cadillacs, then who would willingly pay $35,000 for a Buick? But because GM has conditioned many status-minded buyers (especially older ones) to think of a Buick as "almost a Caddy," people pay almost-Caddy prices for a car that is, in every meaningful aspect, just a glorified Chevy.

Of course, so is the Caddy itself, in many important respects. But because that requires some amplification, and I'm already at risk of going pretty far afield here, it's a good place to stop. I'll just leave you with an exhortation to think about such things when you make your consuming decisions. Yeah, it's a pain. Only, if more of us took those pains, lots of things would cost a whole lot less. Including gasoline.


Anonymous said...

I'm waiting for ten blades myself. I was under the impression more blades meant closer shaves. I am for permanent hair removal, because in the end it is cheaper.

roger o'keefe said...

Not sure I get your point here, Steve. So you're saying that if an innovative company gets a brilliant idea for a product that leads the market, and creates a whole new category (or level) of consumer need--that's a bad thing?

Steve Salerno said...

I'm saying what I said in the post, Rog. It depends on whether or not the need is real, and/or the "service" offered by the product is illusory.

Mike Cane said...

Steve, we're both old enough to recall the hilarious SNL sketch where, I think, Dan Ackroyd lampooned multi-blade shavers by showing one with *four* blades. When that finally actually happened in real life, my jaw dropped. Then all the eejit kidz found out about that SNL spoof and thought they'd gotten a dose of some wisdom.

Me, I use a pack of 99-cent Bic two blades plus a $10 electric. Depends on how less hairy I want/need to be for the day.

Be glad you don't live in Japan, where a *melon* can cost an an American mortgage payment. They have a saying there: A melon is wasted on a gaijin. Talk about creating a market!

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane, Mike--and yanno, it embarrasses me to say, I'd forgotten all about that SNL skit. Wow. Where did those brain cells go?

Yeah, my shaving regimen sounds pretty much like yours--a Norelco to handle the heavy-duty action, then final edging and precision work with a single-edge job plucked from one of those bins in the Dollar Store. Then apply tourniquets and cold compresses to my face for a couple hours, and I'm good to go....