How can you get people to pay more to shave? That's the eternal question in the $6-billion razor business. Hair grows at the same rate year in and year out, and there are few activities more banal than shaving. But the Big Three razormakers America's Gillette and Schick and France's Bic have all come up with a cheeky answer; the very same cheeky answer. And so, after years of relatively peaceful coexistence, competition among them is about to become cutthroat.
The three firms have jostled for shelf space for three decades, but in the past they relied on different marketing niches with limited overlap. Market leader Gillette, with $3.4 billion in annual razor and blade sales, has put its recent emphasis on reusable razors that require pricey blades, for example, while Bic has banked on cheap disposable ones. But now they're on a collision course, as all three begin marketing disposable three-blade razors. Schick's Xtreme 3 was the first to arrive on the market several months ago. The Gillette Sensor 3 and Bic Comfort 3 recently began shipping to distributors, and they're expected to appear in stores in Europe and the U.S. over the next two to three months.
Gillette and Bic both say the timing of their almost-simultaneous launch is coincidental. But a lot is at stake for all three companies, who are cranking up their marketing machines for TV and print ad campaigns later in the year. Disposable razors account for about 70% of the wet-shave market in volume terms, but only 30% of the value. Hence the need to milk more money out of disposable razor users. No one knows if the three-blade gimmick will work, or whether the competition will be as fierce as in the mid-1970s, when Bic first introduced disposables, sparking a huge catch-up effort by Gillette and some bitter lawsuits. But Bruno Bich, Bic's chairman and chief executive, promises: "It's going to be a good fight."
Round 1 will be price. Gillette is pricing its version at about ?1.50 apiece, slightly higher than Schick (known in some parts of Europe as Wilkinson Sword), while the new Bic is expected to retail at around j1 apiece. That's less than its rivals, but four times the price of its basic one-blade disposable.
Focusing on a disposable razor marks a change of strategy for Gillette, which has a 70% share of the world market for razors and blades. The Boston, Massachusetts, firm has been successful in persuading consumers to switch to reusable "shaver systems," including its Mach3 model, where the razor itself is virtually free but replacement blades are expensive. Mach3 became an instant hit after its 1998 launch, and the brand is now a $1 billion per year business, used by 70 million men. All companies hope the Mach3 paved the way for their new disposables by getting consumers used to a three-blade razor. But even in the U.S., 40% of men still use disposables, and "no matter what we do, some people just won't trade up," says Gillette spokeswoman Michèle Szynal. After new management came in two years ago, the company concluded that it needed to be more aggressive in the disposable market. The ad campaign it's planning for Sensor 3 will be its first for a disposable razor in 15 years. Szynal hints at the theme: "We'll give them a disposable worth paying for."
There's change afoot at Schick, too. The company, owned by New York-based pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, makes both reusable and disposable razors, and has seen its market share fall by half over the past five years, according to market research firm Information Resources. But earlier this year, Pfizer sold Schick to battery maker Energizer for $930 million. A spokeswoman says Energizer liked Schick because razors are sold in many of the same outlets as its batteries, and the firm sees good opportunities to grow worldwide.
Bic may have the most at stake. Razors are the third and smallest division of the family-controlled company, which made its money with disposable pens and lighters. It hopes to benefit as much from rivals' marketing as its own. The company is initially producing the razors in Greece and ceo Bich says the biggest short-term risk is not keeping up with demand. Stéphane Radiguet of Deutsche Bank says Comfort 3 is crucial for improving Bic's profit margins. "It needs to work," he says.
Consumer reaction remains to be seen, but the industry's march of progress is easily lampooned. The Rockall Times, a satirical website, recently posted a spoof news item about the inevitable next phase of razor technology: "Scientists working on the enigmatically titled 'Quattro' project are playing their cards close to their chest, but project leader Carl Burgess revealed that the new razor would produce a 33% increase in shaving power." Funny but then people used to laugh at the idea of three blades.