I had a retail tantrum a few weeks ago that changed my hair removal trajectory forever. As a result, I'm going to make a bold statement here on the web where everything lasts forever: I am never buying name brand razors again.
Everyone has a breaking point. Mine came after standing in line for 15 minutes at my local drugstore to purchase blade refills. As usual, my Big Name Shaving Company Pink Razor With A Magical Moisture Strip was worn down to a nub, I had to wear a dress the next day and I had no refills left. I requested my usual box of refills (three blades in the box) and the salesgirl said, "$19.13."
Excuse me? I will not bat an eyelash at spending $100 on face cream, but razors are another story. I see them as utilitarian, and shaving as the "Groundhog Day" of grooming. It's a never-ending grind. (Now granted, those are NYC prices. A quick search reveals the same brand goes for about $3 to $5 dollars per cartridge on Drugstore.com, depending on how many blades and how fancy the strip. Big discount stores like Costco are also a bit cheaper.)
According to Euromonitor International analyst Tim Barrett, the big companies have been getting away with charging those prices for so long because consumers didn't have any other choices. "Gillette, Schick and Bic basically have been riding the golden goose. It's very similar to how printers work, in that you get people to buy the handle and the system and you can just kill them on the refills because there are really no other options." A quick and totally unscientific poll of my Facebook friends supports this and revealed that, almost to a woman, everyone has been buying Venus.
Several entrepreneurs have also apparently had meltdowns in the shaving aisle, and a few years ago online subscription shave clubs marketed to men hit the scene and caused a notable disruption in the industry. The first, Dollar Shave Club (DSC), launched in 2011 but really took off in 2012 after a video featuring co-founder and sometime-comedian Michael Dubin went viral. Watch – it's clever:
DSC obviously touched a nerve with men, who make up about 70 percent of the razor market in the U.S. (According to a Euromonitor report, in 2013 men spent about $2.8 billion on razors and blades and women, who shave seasonally and also have other depilatory options, spent $1 billion.) Dubin, who calls the impenetrable aisle of plastic compartments the "razor fortress," got tired of the whole routine. "You have to find the razor fortress, then you have to find the guy with the key to the razor fortress. And he's always doing something else!" he said.
After DSC's success, other competitors started springing up. DSC is the most successful so far, having captured about 6.2 percent of the men's cartridge market (according to the company) with its "more than" 600,000 subscribers. ShaveMob, which launched last August, has about 10,000 customers. Harry's, a more luxury version of the concept, has "a few hundred thousand" customers. Depending on what kind of blade you buy (2-blade vs. 6-blade, for example) and assuming that you switch blades out every week (many of them last longer than a week), the cost ends up being anywhere from $1 to $15 a month with these online systems. Most give you the handle for free, and then you purchase refills as needed or join as a monthly subscriber. Even Gillette just launched a subscription service for its men's products, though the prices are not much different from buying them retail. (The WSJ pointed out that the math is a bit dodgy.)
The quality provided by the alterna-razor companies is really close to that of drugstore brands. According to Euromonitor's Barrett, these companies use private label razor makers to source their wares, often from Asia. Harry's just bought a blade factory in Germany. "The quality difference is negligible and the price difference is noticeable," Barrett says.
Okay, so it sounds great for guys, but where does this leave women in the whole shaving industrial complex? What are our options besides $6 hot pink, fruit-flavored razor cartridges? After my drugstore breakdown, I systematically started searching.
Two online services, 800Razors and ShaveMob, both offer (pink) women's options. A 2012 Euromonitor report on shaving trends noted that women are concerned about irritation from shaving, and the big companies exploit this by frequently offering new options and "fixes." (I just received a new razor touting "Papaya and Pearl Complex" in the strip, without an explanation of what it supposedly does.) I ordered blades from both of the above services, and they were fantastic and not irritating at all -- both had moisture strips. I'd say the ShaveMob razor was a bit better quality than 800Razors, with a metal vs. plastic blade locking mechanism. If you use an appropriate shave cream or oil, irritation shouldn't be an issue anyway. Both brands' blades lasted about two weeks, after I did daily underarm shaving and more sporadic leg shaving.
Don't get caught up in the lady-centric marketing, though. Both Harry's and DSC have a loyal group of women customers. "[Male] customers have told us that they buy extra blades because they've discovered that their wives or girlfriends have been using theirs," Harry's co-founder Andy Katz-Mayfield tells me. (Karlie Kloss recently told Into the Gloss that she uses Harry's.) Ditto at DSC. Dubin estimated that close to 20 percent of its customers are women, though he acknowledged some of them might be purchasing for the men in their lives. ShaveMob's co-founder Zach Randall says that 5 to 10 percent of the company's customers are women buying men's razors, even though ShaveMob offers women's options.
I tried the DSC razor and it's the clear winner of the three I tried (I still need to try Harry's). The graphic black and white handle is hefty and feels expensive, the blades last me 15 days, and it looks much chicer in my minimalist bathroom than my former pink sparkly razor handle. But if you still think you need "special" women's razors, these companies may soon be providing them.
While Harry's is still mostly focused on men, Katz-Mayfield tells me, "Developing a razor specifically for women is definitely on our radar." Dubin from DSC is a bit more cryptic about his intentions. "I can't speak to our specific plan. All I'll say is we acknowledge the women's market as a huge opportunity," he says.
There are other options, too. Barrett recommended seeking out private label razor companies online. You can find them on Amazon pretty easily. I also found a handle and 10 four-blade refills for $14.50 on Dorco, a site dedicated to affordable, no-name-brand shaving options. Barrett noted that in 2013, retailers like Target and drugstores started to offer branded private label razor systems in stores, so be on the lookout for those options as well, because they'll likely become more available.
Now you have no excuse to embarrass yourself in the drugstore like I did.