A couple weeks back, as the Canadian Olympic Hockey teams were cleaning up in Sochi, a friend who lives in Ottawa tweeted that he hoped I could explain the whole Harry’s phenomenon. I couldn’t. I’d never heard of it.
That says nothing about Harry’s and everything about how out of touch I must be. They’re the latest thing, a media darling: a direct-to-consumer internet startup offering shaving supplies: razors, blades and cream. No brushes, but we’ll get to that.
Now they were poised to invade Canada.
Harry’s is the brainchild of two friends, Andy Katz-Mayfield and Jeff Raider. The idea for the business was hatched when Katz-Mayfield called Raider with a common woe: he couldn’t find decent razors at a reasonable price. For him, as for so many, the ordeal of shaving was compounded by the nuisance, to say nothing of the embarrassment of having to ask at the counter for replacement cartridges because they’re kept under lock and key.
Raider was one of the original partners in another online startup, Warby Parker, who are now among the trendsetting vanguard trying to convince you that wearing a monocle will make you look like anything but a first class twit. The company set out to design and sell fashionable eyewear at affordable prices, and their mission statement has clear implications for the business idea behind Harry’s:
The industry is controlled by a few large companies that have kept prices artificially high, reaping huge profits from consumers who have no other options. By circumventing traditional channels and engaging with customers directly through our website, Warby Parker is able to provide higher-quality, better-looking prescription eyewear at a fraction of the price.
Having several million at their disposal as a result of Warby Parker’s success, the duo set out to remedy the situation. And being of an eleemosynary turn of mind - Warby Parker gives a pair of glasses to a person in need for every pair they sell - they set about trying to find a solution not just for their own individual shaving needs, but for all mankind. Or at least for anyone willing to buy from them instead of from Schick or Gillette, who between them have a wrap on 85 percent of the market.
Taking on the big boys by going direct to consumer through the internet is not a new strategy. Dollar Shave Club staked out that territory a while ago now.
But Dollar Shave Club, as anyone with access to a computer and a little curiosity can discover, doesn’t make the razors it sells. It resells razors made by Dorco, a Korean outfit. What Dollar Shave Club adds to the mix is the convenience of having the blades delivered once a month. You could, of course, just buy directly from Dorco and save even more, but then you’d have to buy in bulk, and you’d lose the convenience of the subscription service.
But really, how much help is that? Reminding you it’s time for a new razor is kind of like telling you how to wipe your own ass. Which, it turns out, Dollar Shave Club now does. Literally.
Proctor and Gamble, Gillette’s parent company, seems to be in denial about the inroads Dollar Shave Club has made, and the threat Harry’s may pose in the long run. Their earnings have dropped over the last year. They attribute that not to competition from other brands, but to a fashion trend: the growing popularity of stubble.
Gillette’s website tells a different story. Their homepage offers you the opportunity to “subscribe to Gillette’s best blades for about a dollar a week.” The math is a little sketchy. Gillette’s cartridges go for around four dollars apiece. As everyone who shaves knows, how long a blade lasts varies from beard to beard. But four weeks out of a Gillette blade seems like a pretty sanguine estimate.
If Gillette’s claim is true, however, that would make them competitive in price with the upstarts. Depending on which of their blade packages you choose, Dollar Shave Club’s prices range from twenty cents to just over two dollars per cartridge. Harry’s offers an “auto refill” program where you get eight blades every two months. The cost of one of the cartridges is a dollar eighty eight.
The point is not the math, though. Gillette has adopted the terms set by Dollar Shave Club, whose suit Harry’s is following with their promise of an “exceptional shave at a fraction of the price.”
Harry’s has done Dollar Shave Club one better, in a way that might make Gillette take notice. Harry’s made news in January by purchasing - for the tidy sum of 100 million dollars - Feintechnik, the German factory that makes, among others, Bolzano safety razor blades.
By buying Feintechnik, Harry’s has gained the ability to make what they sell. They thus control the whole operation from top to bottom. Or, if you prefer business jargon, they have achieved vertical integration, which is a fancy way of saying the same thing and making it sound more sophisticated.
The problem is that in going head to head with the big boys, the alternative they offer isn’t really much of an alternative. Harry’s razor is still a plastic handled carriage for a disposable multiblade cartridge. They advertise it as “Handsomer. Sharperer. Less expensiver.” Maybe so. I haven’t tried one, so I can’t say. But it remains just about as wasteful - though it must be noted that their packaging isn’t as cumbersome and overstuffed - as that offered by their behemoth competitors.
You don’t need more than one blade to get the best shave possible. In fact, more blades has only ever meant more marketing angles, and, for me, anyway, poorer shaves.
Maybe shaving shouldn’t be convenient. Maybe it shouldn’t be something you can do without thinking about it. This doesn’t have to mean it’s inconvenient or worrisome. Quite the opposite.
Maybe instead of convenience we should look for pleasure.
Which brings us to the brush. When you make your own lather from cream or soap and use a brush, it takes longer than if you just squirt something out of a can. But it’s fun. Like Ernie in his bath. And when you take the time to shave the old fashioned way you’re doing something for yourself, instead of to yourself.
In striving to make a razor that embodies higher design standards than what Gillette currently offers, one that is “handsomer,” Harry’s is infusing the staid, moribund locker room of men’s shaving with a sense of fun, which is akin to pleasure. Their fun, however, is for a purpose. They pun around about their support of charitable organizations that help prepare people to face the world, like shaving does. They “give a shave.”
But that’s just a marketing ploy. They want you to feel good about a product that is pretty much the same thing Gillette sells, just cooler looking. It will not change the way you shave, or the way you feel about shaving.
Of course, it’s not hopeless. The cartridge razors Harry’s offers could function as a gateway drug, turning men on to the possibility of a better shave than what’s available to them now at the local big box. If you live in the newly colonized reaches of Canada, say, you might be drawn to Harry’s Maple Leaf red handled razor set.
From there, loyalty to your home and native land could lead you to seek a more robust way to tame your whiskers, like this:
The great Le Grelot blades from France are no longer made. Perhaps Harry’s will one day grace our friendly neighbors to the north with a reproduction of one of my personal favorite straights, this one:
The trouble with Harry’s may be that they just haven’t gone far enough, or in the right direction. They’ve shifted the media through which the market is established and exploited, but they haven’t changed the nature of the product they’re selling. Without doing that, they won’t change the way people shave. That’s a shame, because doing that really might have repercussions beyond shaving. It might serve a higher social aim, and be part of a larger movement, not just a trend, to move us away from an obsession with speed and convenience and toward a way of life where there is room for reflection and meaning amidst the very ordinary, the everyday.
But they’d never get venture capital sufficient to back that.