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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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 3:22am

    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.

     

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    Marcel de Jong (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 3:43am

    I started the old fashioned DE-shaving last year. I can say that I've never been more smooth in the face. :)
    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.

     

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      Leigh Beadon (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 6:03am

      Re:

      I started the old fashioned DE-shaving last year

      Me too! Mike cruelly doesn't give me credit here ;) but it was me who got him on this tip

       

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        Marcel de Jong (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 6:40am

        Re: Re:

        Just out of curiosity, what razor do you use? :) (and Mike for that matters)

         

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          Leigh Beadon (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:17am

          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.

           

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            Marcel de Jong (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 8:40am

            Re: Re: Re: Re:

            I went old school, found a really nice second hand but sanitized Gillette Superspeed from the '40s.

            But that Parker looks really gorgeous.

            Blades, I'm also still looking around, but so far I like Derby's best.

             

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          Mike Masnick (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 9:44am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Just out of curiosity, what razor do you use? :) (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.

           

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            Jeffrey Nonken (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 10:19am

            Re: Re: Re: 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. :) But like others, I too prefer a soap and brush, and I'm planning to stick with my trusty ol' safety razor.

             

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      Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 7:14am

      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.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 9:19am

        Re: Re:

        Wow, over a month. Yeah, I can see how you might consider that a "CRAZY" long time for a razor blade to last. I'd be slightly more impressed if I weren't still getting excellent shaves from the straight razor I've been using since 1989.

         

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          Dave Xanatos, May 8th, 2012 @ 9:33am

          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.

           

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          Almost Anonymous (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 11:45am

          Re: Re: Re:

          You know, I've often considered a straight razor, but the "possibility of accidentally slitting my own throat" thing always gets in the way.

           

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    Mike, May 8th, 2012 @ 3:50am

    A new way to shave

     

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      Some Other AC (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 5:30am

      Re: A new way to shave

      Besides being a distinct possibility, the intro infomercial is freaking hilarious.

       

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      Leigh Beadon (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:22am

      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! :)

       

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    Jake, May 8th, 2012 @ 3:51am

    On the other hand, nobody ever got barred from boarding an airliner or arrested for carrying a concealed weapon over one of those multi-blade things.

     

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    AL, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:01am

    Too many blades

    Please see my article: "Why are five blades necessary?" at http://wetshaving.wordpress.com/2011/09/15/why-are-five-blades-necessary/

     

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      otto (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 5:15am

      Re: Too many blades

      Sounds like a good answer to the wrong question. No, 5 blades are not necessary. The Onion provides all the answers and the question.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:07am

    First half of first paragraph...too much information.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:27am

    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.

     

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      Almost Anonymous (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:16am

      Re:

      Badger hair brush for the win!

       

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        Leigh Beadon (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:23am

        Re: Re:

        Badger hair brush for the win!

        Curious: Just how notable is the badger hair? I currently have boar bristle and have been thinking about upgrading, but wasn't sure if I'd really care about the difference...

         

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          Almost Anonymous (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 8:49am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Honestly, I haven't had the opportunity to use a boar bristle brush, but I'd have to guess that they tend to be a bit, well, bristly. The badger hair brush is very pleasant and springy; I've been using it for a bit over a year and it hasn't lost any of its shape or feel. Plus it just looks cool!

           

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    peter, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:31am

    stop changing things!

    What bugs me more is that every time a new razor is brought out, the mounting changes and the previous razor is discontinued. This means i cannot by replacements.


    aaaaaarrrrrhhhhh

     

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      TtfnJohn (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:15am

      Re: stop changing things!

      Let's not add to this insulting ads promoting the razor and blades features a bunch of wild camera people and idiotic "reporter" busting into a change room where guys are in various states of undress without all of them getting whacks in the side of the head or in the nuts.

      Bye, bye Gillette!

       

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      Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 9:42am

      Re: stop changing things!

      ???

      I've been using a Sensor Excel for probably a decade. You can still get the cartridges, despite the new 3, 4, 5-blade options

       

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    Zauber Paracelsus (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 4:32am

    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.

     

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      John Fenderson (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 9:54am

      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.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:34am

    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.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 7:35am

      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?

       

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:37am

    The purpose of a safety razor is to reduce the skill needed to shave. And they preform their job well. The drawback is the quality of shave suffers. Because of our patent system manufacturers have to design work arounds to stay in the gae and not get sued.

     

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      JEDIDIAH, May 8th, 2012 @ 7:11am

      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.

       

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    Trollzy Shillbottom, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:50am

    Oh Mikey - what a luddite ... as everyone with a brain knows, not using the latest wizbang plastic multi blade vibrating razor means the terrorists have won. The war on shaving has begun.

     

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    Don, May 8th, 2012 @ 5:04am

    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.

     

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    otto (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 5:10am

    I also belong to the double edge master race for at least 20 years, but not really for the cost: for convenience and efficiency. They are better. A three day beard destroys two multi-blades.

    I recently checked the prices of razors for the common sucker, due to an article saying they are the most commonly stolen article in supermarkets:
    8o ...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 5:13am

    This is why RMS doesn't shave.

     

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    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, May 8th, 2012 @ 5:16am

    “But Customers Are Discerning,” We’re Told

    “People are smart,” we’re told. “They don’t just swallow any old thing they’re told in ads,” we’re told. “We present our side of the story, and let them make up their own minds,” we’re told.

    So, does the Free Market work, or not?

     

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      Marcel de Jong (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 5:55am

      Re: “But Customers Are Discerning,” We’re Told

      What?! You mean using Axe/Lynx bodyspray/aftershave/showergel doesn't make women flock to me in a desperate attempt to kiss me?

       

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      Lord Binky, May 8th, 2012 @ 7:55am

      Re: “But Customers Are Discerning,” We’re Told

      Noo... A person is smart. People are stupid.

       

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    Sneeje (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 5:56am

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 6:02am

    I have a very good shave with my Gillette Mach 3 Turbo. I tried a Gillette Fusion with 4/5 blades and a vibrating handle but it wasn't so good. I always come back to the trusty old Mach 3.

     

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    Dark Helmet (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 6:30am

    .....

    "I recently became slightly... er... obsessed with the wonders of shaving with an old fashioned double edge safety razor."

    You're a weird guy, Masnick....

     

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      Almost Anonymous (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:25am

      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.

       

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      mantic59, May 8th, 2012 @ 12:01pm

      Re: .....

      You say that like it's a bad thing. :)

       

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 6:45am

    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. ;)

     

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      Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 7:11am

      Re: I don't know...

      It's more difficult to cut yourself because the blades are at a fixed angle. Though the other reason sounds like a good one to me.

       

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      Paul Cz, May 8th, 2012 @ 7:16am

      Re: I don't know...

      Agree. Does anyone have a good experience shaving their head with a DE?

       

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      Leigh Beadon (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:26am

      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. ;)

      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 :)

       

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    Lord Binky, May 8th, 2012 @ 7:53am

    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.

     

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    Stephan Kinsella (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 7:58am

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 9:39am

    "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.

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 9:56am

      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...

       

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        Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 10:39am

        Re: Re:

        That may be true about the barber. I have no way to judge that.

        But my own experience tells me that the Sensor Excel is vastly superior to the bic disposables or even the Schick models that tried to mimic it, contrary to that article claim of no improvement.

         

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          Marcel de Jong (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 12:19pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Well with shaving it's always YMMV.

          Technically it doesn't offer an improvement, as more blades don't generally offer a better shave, despite what the ads claim. But if that particular kind of razor works for you, more power to you.

           

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            Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 12:38pm

            Re: Re: Re: 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.

             

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            •  
              icon
              Marcel de Jong (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 4:00pm

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Anecdotal evidence at best. :)

              But then again I prefer to have just 1 blade.

               

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              •  
                identicon
                Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:06pm

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

                Sure. I accept the possibility that I may just be an anomaly.

                But the difference is very noticeable for me.

                Also, I don't necessarily have anything against the 3, 4, 5, N-blade cartridges, except that they use a different pivot point, which I don't like.

                 

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  •  
    identicon
    PRMan, May 8th, 2012 @ 10:25am

    I use a Norelco electric

    I use a Norelco electric. Once a week. I don't have a 5 o'clock shadow until Thursday.

    Works great and I've been using the same one for a decade. It costs me a few cents of electricity.

    BTW, I get flirted with every Thursday like clockwork.

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 10:41am

      Re: I use a Norelco electric

      Well, different people have different beards.

      If I shave on Monday, I've basically got a scruffy beard by Thursday.

       

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  •  
    icon
    Dr. Debois (profile), May 8th, 2012 @ 10:53am

    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?

     

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  •  
    identicon
    Callum Makkai, May 8th, 2012 @ 11:24am

    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. =)

     

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    •  
      identicon
      Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 11:49am

      Re:

      I have a question. What makes you think that the various "advances" in razor designs are no better than their predecessors?

      I, for one, have had a far better experience using a Sensor Excel than any Bic or Schick product that came before it (and some that came after).

       

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  •  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, May 8th, 2012 @ 4:53pm

    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 :) ). 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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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