How shaving became a cut-throat business

    28 November 2017

    For years the fool’s gold of the grooming business was men’s products. While L’Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt could have attested to the countless billions to be made flogging cosmetics and beauty creams to women, there was no comparable market for men. Yet, things have now changed – and it turns out the answer to making money from male grooming was staring back at us blokes from the shaving mirror all along.

    Last year Unilever acquired the latest unicorn set to disrupt established industries – men’s shaving kits. The Dollar Shave Club, a business started by two Californians who bonded at a party over the outrageous price of razors, was valued at over $1 billion at the time. The idea for Dollar Shave Club is simple – sign up to a mailing list and get sent all the razors you need for a monthly bill of $1. Given a pack of Gillette Mach 3 razorblades currently costs £8.29 in Boots, it’s easy to see why the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley were circling.

    A YouTube video of founder Mike Dubin exhorting men everywhere to, ‘Stop forgetting to buy your blades every month and start deciding where you’re going to stack all those dollar bills I’m saving you’, has so far attracted 25 million views, suggesting they are reaching their target market. So is the future of shaving less male grooming and more mail-order?

    Other companies have been quick to follow suit, notably US firm Harry’s which has recently moved to the UK, and a more home-grown start-up, Cornerstone, whose founder I spoke to. ‘I still remember the clichéd eureka moment,’  says Oliver Bridge. ‘I suffered years of sensitive skin and razor burn. I was in the aisle in Boots queuing up for my Gillette razor blades it was a horrible experience from end to end and I thought there’s got to be a better product out there.’

    Bridge’s brainwave came at about the same time that Mark Levine and Mike Dubin were packing their first boxes for Dollar Shave Club. Like all great inventions from the light bulb to atomic theory, it looks like mail-order shaving is an example of the phenomenon known as ‘multiple independent discovery’, when the stars align and humanity never looks back.

    It is odd, though, that this revolution in shaving is taking place at a time when ‘peak beard’ is continually called but is never quite reached. This Christmas we can look forward to our bearded brethren yet again covering their faces in glitter for the ultimate festive look, while daily shaving seems to have gone the way of the tie and the wolf whistle in many workplaces.

    While fighting the rise of the beard, Cornerstone’s Bridge remains hopeful that the fashion for beards is waning: ‘When you look at celebrities the tide has turned. It’s pretty uncool to look like Jeremy Paxman and the other old men who have adopted beards I think the pendulum will swing back to the smoother look and we’ll leave that grungy, scruffy look behind.’

    It’s certainly making the business of shaving a cutthroat one. Not only do you have disruptors such as Dollar Shave Club and Cornerstone but trendy barber shops, including Haks Oscars and The Mug and Brush, have popped up across London, to go with venerable institutions like Geo F Trumper and Truefitt & Hill. These are places where gentleman can pop in for a drink and a shave, and spend their lunch break pretending to be Bertie Wooster.

    The big beasts are also looking to cash in on mail-order shaving, turning the market into a turf war of the multinationals. Stung by their great rival Unilever’s acquisition of Dollar Shave Club, Procter & Gamble, the owners of Gillette, have fought back. Earlier this year Gillette on Demand was launched which operates a similar mail-order service while also offering delivery on demand by text.

    This war of attrition has seen the start-ups up their game by offering all the products you would find in a modern man’s bathroom – deodorant, moisturiser, dental products. ‘It’s a massive help that men hate shopping,’ says Bridge.

    In this brave new world, it looks like everyone’s a winner except for the poor old shop floors which are set to lose yet another aisle to online shopping. For all the attempts at extracting the male dollar with fake tan, tinted moisturiser or manscara, the holy grail for male’s grooming was much more prosaic. Men hate shopping and hate being fleeced.