Do You Owe Your Crappy Shave To Patents?

from the might-be-a-bit-extreme dept

As some people know (my colleagues at work are sick of me talking about it), I recently became slightly… er… obsessed with the wonders of shaving with an old fashioned double edge safety razor. I won’t go into the details, but in reading about shaving with such a device, I couldn’t get it out of my mind and have been happily shaving with one for a few weeks now. To be honest, I never thought that I’d ever have reason to mention this in any way, shape or form on Techdirt, but just weeks after I started using one, I saw Stephan Kinsella point to a story by Callum Makkai entitled How Intellectual Property Destroyed Men’s Shaving. Given my (entirely separate) interest in both subjects, I dug in. It kicks off with a reference to Andy Kessler’s Eat People story about King Gillette’s disruptive manufacturing of disposable blades that “challenged at least two professions: the barber with his straight razor and the blade sharpener with his strop.”

From there, however, Makkai suggests patents have actually been making shaving worse. His argument is that as the makers of shaving equipment have been fearful of competing with commodity products, they keep “inventing” new ways to shave that they can lock up under patent — and then try to convince you that it creates a better shave, even if none of the “improved” razors come close to one of those old safety razors:

The commodification of the razor blade was punishing to the profit margins of the razor companies. So the way ahead was clear: come up with new designs, patent them, and make a killing selling the disposable blades.

Thus the 1970s saw the emergence of the BIC disposable razor. Why replace just the blade when you can throw out and replace the whole razor?

Then in the 1980s, Gillette introduced the double-bladed Sensor cartridges. Now the question was: Why throw out the whole razor when you can just replace the cartridge?

Needless to say, these innovations were driven not so much by an improvement of the shaving experience but by the need to create a technology which could be patented.

Indeed, the injector razor did not improve the shaving experience compared to the classic double-edged safety razor, and the disposable razor was in no way superior to the injector razor. Likewise, the Sensor cartridges did not improve on the disposable razor. These developments only made shaving more expensive.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a cynical view on things. And one could make the argument that this isn’t so much about patents as it is about marketing — though it could be a combination of both. Frankly, the story reminds me of what we see all too often in the pharmaceutical world these days — where when Claritin is about to go off patent, suddenly we get Clarinex, with an associated marketing campaign about how you have to use that rather than the original (much cheaper and equally effective) Claritin. Of course, if people didn’t fall for the marketing campaigns, none of this would matter — but they do. So combine that with the ability to charge monopoly rents due to patents, and voila, many of you are getting a crappy shave, despite the ten blades or whatever they’re shoving on those darn cartridges these days. We should always be wary when life imitates The Onion, and wonder if, perhaps, the incentives are screwed up somewhere along the line.

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Companies: bic, gillette

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Comments on “Do You Owe Your Crappy Shave To Patents?”

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72 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

In the 80s i dreamed about taking out a patent for 3,4,5,6,7,8 etc.. blade razors to stop this. It used to really annoy me how the disposable razor suddenly become much worse than the twinhead, it was as if they suddenly made the single blade blunter?
I’ve been thinking of trying a safety razor – almost impossible to find in shops though, time for amazon i guess.

Marcel de Jong (profile) says:

I started the old fashioned DE-shaving last year. I can say that I’ve never been more smooth in the face. ๐Ÿ™‚
Throw out your overpriced can of shaving goo and your gillette 12 bladed electricly buzzing deathmachine, and get a brush, some soap, a nice DE-razor and blade, and lather and shave away.

But more on topic, I can’t say that I’m surprised. It should be that patents encouraged innovation, but it is being used to punish people who dare to innovate for quite a few years now.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I have a sleek Parker 22R butterfly-open one that I love:
http://www.shavingstyle.com/safety-razors/parker-22r-butterfly-open-safety-razor.html

Mike went with a similar Parker – not sure which one exactly. Blade-wise I’m all about the Wilkinson Sword but haven’t really done much experimenting with other options.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Just out of curiosity, what razor do you use? ๐Ÿ™‚ (and Mike for that matters)

I’m using a Parker 99R. It’s great. For blades, I’ve been using Sharks, but I just got a sample pack of a bunch of other blades, so I may do some testing. I like the Sharks, but figure I should see what else the world has to offer.

Jeffrey Nonken (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I got my Gillette adjustable about 8 years ago on eBay.

I’ve tried a few different blades. For me, the Personna worked well for several years, the Feather Platinums are awesome but I object to the plastic dispenser (I consider it environmentally wasteful), and the Astra feel like they’re tearing my skin at the corners (they’re not, but I keep looking for blood). I’m working through one of the variety packs on Amazon right now and the Sharks and the Lords seem OK. (Gods. Sounds like a crappy gang movie.)

Keep in mind that I never really shaved until I was in my late 40s so I’m probably doing it all wrong. ๐Ÿ™‚ But like others, I too prefer a soap and brush, and I’m planning to stick with my trusty ol’ safety razor.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I started the old fashioned DE-shaving last year.

Me three! And also enjoying a smoother, cleaner shave. And I’ll give you both a tip, if you haven’t heard it yet:
Dry your blade after each use, and it will last a CRAZY amount of time. I’ve used the same blade for over a month! It’s actually rust that makes the blade appear “dull”, if you prevent the rust, you can re-use blades for quite a while. And yes, I stole that tip from Clark Howard.

Dave Xanatos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’d be slightly more impressed if I weren’t still getting excellent shaves from the straight razor I’ve been using since 1989.

That’s nothing! The men in my family have all been using the same hunk of sharpened obsidian for generations! Rumor has it that our ancestor got it from a South American chieftain when he saved his life from a jaguar.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: A new way to shave

Dollar Shave Club is cool and probably the best way to get crappy new-style razors. But – they are still crappy new-style razors.

Dear entrepreneurs: there is a kickass opportunity for someone to launch something like DSC with safety razors, offering blade/soap subscriptions and giving away razors/brushes as incentives to sign up for various chunks of time. It could be marketed using a blend of DSC’s quirky classiness and the greatest-generation nostalgia employed by brands like Old Spice with its “if your grandpa hadn’t worn it, you wouldn’t exist” marketing campaign. Remind everyone that DE razors are Mad Men-era razors. You will be rich!

PLEASE DO THAT! ๐Ÿ™‚

Anonymous Coward says:

Do You Owe Your Crappy Shave To Patents?

Nope I never have a crappy shave, I have a cup with shave soap, a badger hair brush and a long handle double edge razor.
After my morning shower I use very hot water to make up a softening lather with the soap and brush and remove my facial hair with the safety razor. Pulling the facial skin taught as I shave.

The blades are $0.17 each, the shave soap $0.89 and the shave is better than any but from a barber shop.

Sometimes the older tried and true just works.

Though the razor that Edward James Olmos used on the TV show Battlestar Galactica is one that I would like to acquire.

Zauber Paracelsus (profile) says:

Tooth Brushes

You see a similar thing with tooth brushes. For years I’ve been using those electric tooth brushes which marketers love to claim are more effective at cleaning between teeth than the outdated manual toothbrushes.

I’ve since started using a manual toothbrush again, and I’ve found that it is what is more effective, while the electric toothbrush has the inferior effectiveness.

This all spawns from the fallacy that technology keeps getting better and that newer automatically means better, when in fact it quite often gets worse. And sometimes, it gets both better and worse (thanks to things like planned obsolescence or just poor quality in general).

How many of you have upgraded an OS or application for its much-touted newer features, but found yourself downgrading to the previous version because it worked better?

Sadly, in spite of this a lot of people continue to believe that newer is always better, and marketers love to take advantage of such beliefs.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Tooth Brushes

There is one way that the electric toothbrush can lead to a better result: many of them have timers to tell you when to switch mouth quadrants or somesuch, ensuring that you brush all your teeth for long enough. Of course, you don’t need an electric toothbrush for this. A timer or clock with a second hand is all you really need.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’ve been using a single edge straight razor for a fair long time now. After initial outlay for razor (I use a Dovo and a Thiers-Issard), decent brush, strop and proper soap you’re already saving coin. The razor will last for many years with care and you get a better shave.

All this buying new blade-heads and new razor entirely every year is born of marketing and little more as far as I can tell.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: culture

When I was teenager I didn’t have much money, so I often had to shave with a dull cartridge. (And even with a fresh cartridge I had a couple of trouble spots like the point of my chin that I always left bristly or bleeding).

At seventeen I was fed up, and saved up the money to buy a straight razor. I got some bad advice on how to sharpen it, and shaved with a dull straight for several years. Who knows how to sharpen a razor these days?

Then I asked a barber, got better advice, started sharpening it the right way (which is actually easier than the wrong way) and had the pleasure of a sharp razor from then on. But my shaving technique was still lousy, carried over from what I’d taught myself in the years with the cartridge razor. I had vague suspicions that I was doing it wrong, but the only tutorials I could find were from the early 20th century; they didn’t make much sense and didn’t tell me the basics which I suppose boys were supposed to learn from their fathers. Who knows how to shave with a straight these days?

Then along came the Web, with blogs and videos, and I could learn good technique without a teacher. Now shaving is a pleasure, I get a great shave every time, better than I recall getting from the cartridges, faster too, with no trouble spots, I haven’t bought a new blade in twenty years, and the one time (since 9/11) when I forgot and left my straight razor in my carry-on bag, the TSA didn’t notice it. What’s not to love?

JEDIDIAH says:

Re: overwrought nonsense

This is certainly an area where patents pose a problem but it’s certainly not as dire as the article makes out.

I can be as much of a cheapskate as I want to really. Cheaper and more traditional options remain available and I can use them if I want. I can also use the “new nonsense” too if I find it helps.

This is a nice and relatively harmless demonstration of how patents are inherently harmful to the market regardless of whatever long term public good is derived from one.

Patents are treated as trivial and harmless and that’s just wrong even if you happen to be “pro-patent”. There’s a clear downside that needs to be acknowledged here in any public policy discussion. The evil side of patents is usually just ignored and dismissed.

Don (profile) says:

5 blades, ohh ha!

I had jumped on the 5 blade with vibrating handle band wagon. Without the vibrating handle it’s like trying trying to dislodge ice on a frozen driveway in the winter.

So recently I accidently bought the 3 blades and they shave so much smoother. And I think their prices went up, too.

Maybe I should go down to those weird double edged razors, I’ve always wanted to try one.

Sneeje (profile) says:

Not convinced patents have anything to do with it

Mike, you yourself have pointed out the dimensions of competition. We all know they are price, service/features, and perhaps scarcity.

The brand names would never throw away their brand value (e.g., compete on price), so they have to compete on innovative features. Whether they could patent their features or not and minimize copying (theoretically), they would, IMO, still behave the way they are now. Perhaps even more so.

I do agree, though, that it would be interesting to see what the prices would be in a patent-free market.

Almost Anonymous (profile) says:

Re: .....

Nah, I know what he means. When you convert, you actually *do* get a bit obsessed, especially in trying to convey to your fellow man how much better and cheaper the double edge really is. You start reading shaving blogs and going to specialty shaving sites. You buy badger hair brushes and look for the “perfect” shaving cup. You… evidently proselytize on technical blogs when given the smallest opportunity.

Leigh Beadon (profile) says:

Re: I don't know...

Shaving your head with a straight razor might be a bit tricky. The one thing about the multi-blades is that because they’re so crappy its really difficult to cut yourself. ๐Ÿ˜‰

Big difference between a straight razor and a DE safety razor – but yeah, still not sure how that would play out for shaving your head, which is something i hope to never do ๐Ÿ™‚

Lord Binky says:

Does this explain..

Why women’s razors’ cost at least $2 more then mens and they get less razors per package? Is it because pink razors are patented and they have to pay licence fees? Why is it noone sells a product labelled Razor-Save that you store your disposables in ? It only has to be mineral oil with a label, and people would OOO AHH and the fancy package and label and spend $10 more than a mason jar and mineral oil would cost, and they’d buy it monthly if you told them to.

Stephan Kinsella (profile) says:

Shave Secret

After trying various solutions over the years, including electric razors, wet-dry razors, baby oil or just water, and so on, in recent years I’ve settled on:
1. Shave Secret, http://www.shavesecret.com/ — LOVE this stuff. plus
2. Gillette Fusion razor with power– a little battery in the handle makes the blade vibrate so that the razor just cuts thru whiskers like I’ve never seen. This combination gives me no irritation and an unltra-smooth shave. Better than anything in the past that I’ve ever tried.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Likewise, the Sensor cartridges did not improve on the disposable razor. These developments only made shaving more expensive.”

I’m calling BS on that. The shave I get with a Sensor Excel far exceeds anything I’ve gotten with other disposable razors or cartridges.

It is also better than the one or two shaves I’ve gotten from a barber with a straight razor (I guess “safety razor” is the terminology), which resulted in severe razor burn.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It is also better than the one or two shaves I’ve gotten from a barber with a straight razor (I guess “safety razor” is the terminology), which resulted in severe razor burn.

For what it’s worth, it sounds like your barber is crappy with the straight razor. Also, the safety razor and the straight razor are different things…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

The Sensor Excel is a 2-blade cartridge, so more or less blades really doesn’t have anything to do with it (bic twins had been around forever before any Sensor I think).

Anyway, simply saying “technically” before you make an assertion doesn’t make it sound more or less right.

The Sensor Excel gives a better shave than its predecessors, based on my experience. I’d call that an improvement.

Dr. Debois (profile) says:

But, come on, the new-razor-technology-every-year is surely about convincing consumers to buy a new razor every so often and about charging outrageously for razor blades, all in the interest of repeat business? As I understand it, the de facto monopoly of Gillette (at least in my country) is about massive ad budgets and entrenched consumer preferences. Patents is not the barrier to entry here. Right?

Callum Makkai (user link) says:

Thanks for commenting on my post about shaving & intellectual property.

My original post wasn?t as clear as it could have been, and you?ve helped clarify that the problem lies not only with intellectual property but also the way large companies get to spend marketing resources and use distribution power to get their patented products into the marketplace. There is at least a three-pronged approach: IP, marketing, distribution.

As for being cynical ? I guess I?m guilty as charged. =)

Anonymous Coward says:

If you want to give Safety razors (or straights) a try, go here: http://www.badgerandblade.com . You’ll find everything you need to get great shaves, and save a lot of money (if you don’t succumb to it as a hobby ๐Ÿ™‚ ). Check out the the wiki there as well for great articles on getting started with a new or vintage double edge razor, and the shaving process itself.

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