Razors and blades model – why Gillette did not implement it

The razors and blades model is a business model1 in which one item is sold at a low price in order to increase sales of a complementary good. Common variations today is printers-and-ink, consoles-and-games, and razors-and-cartridges.

There is a common myth that the business model originated with King Gillette. This myth is false – Gillette priced his early razors at 5 US dollars. This was equivalent to about approximately 145 US dollar in 2020… five times more expensive than the offerings from companies like Gem, EverReady and Christy. All three sold their razors for one dollar, while companies like CURBO even gave their razors away for free.

I am not – by far – the first one to notice this. Randal C. Picker of the University of Chicago Law School wrote a paper on the myth in 2010.2 The paper is an interesting take on disruptive technologies, and how patents influence business practices. Gillette didn’t start moving towards the razor and blade model until after the patent on the Gillette Old expired. One could argue Gillette wasn’t fully committed to the model until they introduced cartridges.

As described in the paper, EverReady and other low priced razors came much closer to the razor and blade model. Gillette seems to have implemented a monopolistic business model3 – costly razors and a single source of blades. This was not completely successful, since they did not have a monopoly on safety razors in general.To quote the paper:

Gillette’s business model—both its actual business model and its supposed razors-and-blades model—faced real competition and strong limits. The Ever-Ready and Gem Junior razor handles were implicitly priced at a very low price. Straight-blade shavers could try the new multi-blade approach with a minimal upfront investment and Gillette shavers could switch easily if Gillette blade prices were too high.

Picker, Randal C., The Razors-and-Blades Myth(s) (September 13, 2010). U of Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper No. 532, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1676444 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1676444

Keywords is minimal upfront investment. Today someone making the shift from cartridges to traditional wetshaving is more likely to buy a 30 dollar safety razor over a 150 dollar one. It must be assumed that the same held true 100-120 years ago. If the initial investment is lower, the barrier to entry is lower. This probably explains why so many inexpensive razors – Diamond Edge, Christy and even CURBO – stayed in production and use for such a long time

I strongly suggest reading the paper – or if time is of the essence, at least the article the author penned for the Harvard Business Review.

Footnotes:

1) An in depth article can be found on Wikipedia.
2) You can read the abstract here, and also download the full thirty six page paper.
3) Once again, there is an article on Wikipedia.

Patent for the Clemak safety razor

A couple of years ago I posted about the Clemak safety razor. As British as Bulldogs and the British Army, the Clemak is covered by a British patent. I have no indications that a US patent was ever applied for. The Clemak was marketed as an inexpensive razor – why pay a guinea? – and the patent points to an important feature that made it economical in use:

The blade was self adjusting – so no matter how ground down it was, it would be pressed against the blade stop. In this way the shaver would not have to buy new blades all the time, but simply rehone and reuse the ones that came in the box.

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The King Oscillator and the Rotary King razors

A few1 years ago I wrote a short post on a 1933 oscillating razor. Further searching online revealed that it was sold under the name King Oscillator. And to my joy, patents for it are available online.

Photo and blurb from Modern Mechanix, March 1933

I have also found the design patent for it, namely US design patent2 75,147. Comparing the photo of the razor – especially the handle – as it appeared in Modern Mechanix and the patent drawings, it is most likely the same razor.

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King Oscillator advertisement

Think that weird and wonderful razors needing special blades were a thing of the early days of safety razors? Would this advertisement for a King Oscillator from 1946 change your mind?

From The Minneapolis Star Tribune, June 16, 1946.

I found this advertisement as I was writing a different and longer blog post about the King Oscillator and the Rotary King razors… so consider this a teaser for next week.

Janos Oscar Plesch’s double double edged blade

Some inventions are solutions in search of problems. The double double edged blade is a prime example, double so in J O Plesch’s itteration of the idea. Not just a double double edged blade, but attempting to be a slant at the same time. And likely prone to blade chatter. However, as the patent explains, his intentions were good:

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Mr Dunn’s Single Edge Razor for Double Edge Blades

Recently razors.click tweeted about a razor patent that I’ve never seen before and it has some really intriguing features. It was filed in 1908, and the patent granted in 1912. It’s a patent by Clifford E Dunn, whom we have meet before.

One of described forms is a single edge razor using a double edge blade – not a unique idea by itself, but this is one of the earliest ones I know of. That design is set up to use Gillette’s three hole blade1 – thus avoiding having to reintroduce yet another blade on the market. Other forms can use a single edged blade – the early Gem blade might work, or a Christy style blade.

On to the patent, which described – according to the text – “certain new and useful Improvements in Safety-Razors”. To quote:

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Anton Hopfen’s improved shaving brush

Is your brush too soft? To stiff? Ever wanted a brush that could be either? If that is the case, Anton Hopfen’s improved shaving brush is what you need. Patented in 1878, it was not only capable of adjusting the loft and backbone on the fly, but also held the shaving soap.

Interestingly enough, the adjustable loft wasn’t the main point of the invention. To quote the patent text:

The nature of my invention consists in the construction of a handle for shaving-brushes, which form a receptacle for the shaving-soap or other articles, as will be hereinafter more fully set forth.

US patent 206,791

In other words the adjustable brush was more of an afterthought. A bright idea tacked on to a dim idea, seen in hindsight.

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Anestis Foltis’ folded safety razor

Disposable safety razors were patented from time to time in the past. Usually they were just a regular safety razor made from cheap or disposable materials. Sometimes they were a minor stroke of genius. Sometimes they were plain odd. Mr Foltis’ safety razor made from bent sheet metal is one of the later two.

An important object of the invention is to provide an inexpensive safety razor having an integral razor blade of small size whereby the entire razor must be disposed of after the blade becomes too dull for shaving purposes.

US patent 2,550,056
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