In need of a spark, Gillette brings the heat
You’ve seen those plastic bags full of disposable razors at Walmart? Well, I’m the guy who buys them. They’re just sharp enough for what I need, and my face doesn’t complain.
And I can buy a whole lot of them for the $200 that Gillette wants me to pay for its new razor, a battery-powered gadget that heats your face as you shave. While the GilletteLabs Heated Razor is definitely not designed for the likes of me, I’ve gotten a kick out of using it. It’s a new concept: shaving as entertainment.
Humans have been shaving away facial hair for millennia, so it’s not easy to improve on the process. But Boston-based Gillette keeps trying. The company’s habit of adding more blades to its razors seemed innovative back in 1971 with the first dual-bladed razor. These days, it’s a punchline. Already, Gillette makes five-bladed razors that leave the skin as bare as a billiard ball. Adding one more blade would be as useful as giving Jeff Bezos another dollar.
But if Gillette engineers couldn’t make their razors sharper, they could stilll improve on comfort. And for years, their customer had been telling them how to.
“When we ask guys what their ideal shaving experience is, they always say, whether they’ve had one or not, the hot towel shave at the barbershop,” said Stephanie Niezgoda Moss, a Gillette senior engineer. “That was kind of the next frontier for us.”
But how? Home devices for dispensing hot towels and warm lather have never caught on. So Gillette decided to heat up the razor itself.
In 2017, the company patented a design developed at its laboratory in Germany. It features a rechargeable battery encased in a waterproof grip and a thin stainless steel bar that presses against the face and gets as hot as 122 degrees. That little strip of hot metal is supposed to simulate the feel of a barber-shop shave.
Skeptic that I am, I headed for the Boston Barber Exchange near my office and recruited owner Joshua Pelletier to run an experiment. I figured my own rather soft facial hair would be an insufficient challenge, so I recruited Globe assistant news editor Roy Greene, whose impressively grizzled face would pose a serious test.
Pelletier was as skeptical as I was.
“I don’t know how the heated blade is going to do anything that’s going to be beneficial during the shave, except feeling nice,” he said.
Still, he softened Greene up with some hot towels, then shaved one side with a straight razor, and the other with the heated Gillette.
On either side, Greene got a close shave, but it still wasn’t a close call.
“The experience was much more pleasant on the straight razor side,” he said. “The heating element on that Gillette razor, just to my mind, did not enhance the experience at all.”
And that was that. Or was it? Surely the test was unfair. I ought to compare it with an everyday do-it-yourself shave, performed at home in front of a steamy bathroom mirror. And I had facial hair I’d been saving up for just the occasion.
So when I got home, I smeared on the Barbasol and got busy.
Compared with those throwaway razors I usually use, the heated Gillette just slid across my skin with the merest resistance. Five minutes later, the entire lower half of my face was suffused with a warm, toasty glow. It didn’t match the deep, thorough warmth of a hot towel, but it was far more satisfying than I’d have expected. That warm feeling soon faded, and I found myself missing it.
The next day, I found myself wishing my facial hair would grow a bit faster so I could try it again.
Shaving hasn’t been much fun for Gillette lately. In 2005, when the company was scooped up by the household products giant Procter & Gamble for $57 billion, Gillette dominated the market for razors and blades. As recently as 2010, the company sold 70 percent of all the razors bought in the United States, according to the research firm Euromonitor; today, it’s below 50 percent.
Olivia Guinaugh of the market research firm Mintel said spending on shaving gear has been in decline for the past six years, largely because of a surge of competitors like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s, two companies that offer premium-quality products at significantly lower prices.
Gillette has responded with price cuts, accompanied by a tacit admission that its prices may have been a bit high. “We heard you loud and clear,” the company posted on its blog in 2017. “You told us our blades can be too expensive and we listened.” The lower prices may slow the erosion of market share, but at the cost of lower revenues.
Gillette has also tried some bold marketing. In January, it rolled out a controversial TV advertisement challenging its male customers to treat women better. It didn’t go over well. Many viewers called the ad patronizing and offensive. On YouTube, the ad has attracted nearly 800,000 likes, but 1.4 million dislikes.
And it so far hasn’t boosted the razor business, either. P&G’s personal grooming business, which includes Gillette, last week reported a 1 percent decline in quarterly revenue. It’s unclear that the ad hurt sales, but it sure didn’t help.
Now Gillette may be trying a version of Apple’s iPhone X strategy: As sales slow, boost profit margins with a higher-priced product.
The strategy has failed Apple recently, due to limp sales of those pricey iPhones. Still, it worked for a few quarters. And it just might work for Gillette, as well.
I consider $200 far too much to pay for the transient delights of Gillette’s new razor. But if they ever make a cheaper version and start selling them by the bag at Walmart, I’m there.