New direct-to-consumer shaving brands are bringing a different approach to the $2.1 billion razor business
The shaving space was an early battleground for direct-to-consumer brands. After Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s and Billie, what are new shaving brands doing differently?
When direct-to-consumer razor brands first started popping up all over the place, Adam Simone decided to run an experiment. He started collecting blades from each of the new brands, plus some of their legacy competitors, so he could take them apart. “I stripped out all of the plastic, I stripped out all the lubrication strips, to the thing that was actually doing the work — the steel blades,” he explains. “And they were identical.”
The results of this exercise went on to inform the launch of Simone’s own brand, Leaf Shave, in 2018. The startup sells metal razor handles that can be loaded and reloaded with razor blades. The head of the razor has been designed to have that familiar look of a disposable or cartridge razor — only it’s far cheaper to refresh.
Leaf is one of several brands — alongside razor purveyors Supply, Hanni and Oui The People — following in the footsteps of direct-to-consumer shaving pioneers like Harry’s, Dollar Shave Club and Billie.
Taking a different approach than that of their predecessors, they are shifting the focus from razor cartridge subscriptions and instead exploring if they can provide customers a better way to shave altogether — ones that cuts out the plastic, doesn’t rely on adding flourishes like moisturizing strips and extra blades, and instead focuses on the simplicity of the safety razor.
Dollar Shave Club — which sells affordable razor handles and cartridges via subscription — became a breakout direct-to-consumer success when it launched in 2012. Within 48 hours in business, the brand acquired 12,000 customers, becoming an instant case study in the power of viral marketing. In 2015 it was valued at $615 million; the next year it sold to Unilever for $1 billion.
Meanwhile, direct-to-consumer shaving competitor Harry’s was firmly squaring up to legacy shaving brands like Gillette and Bic. By 2019, six years after launch, it was thought that Harry’s had swiped a 7% share of the U.S. non-disposable razor market.
But while this first wave of digital-first shaving brands were able to acquire swathes of customers and rattle the cages of their gigantic competitors, some things weren’t quite adding up in the world of shaving subscription services.
In 2019 the Wall Street Journal reported that Dollar Shave Club still wasn’t turning a profit, despite its $1 billion price tag, and that Unilever was reconsidering how much financial sense these sorts of subscription services made in the long term. Other razor brands hoping to sell up were also struggling. A deal that would have seen Harry’s acquired for $1.4 billion by Edgewell (which owns the Schick razor brand) was abandoned in early 2020 following challenges from the FTC, which thought the tie-up would create stifle competition. Procter & Gamble was in a similar position with its proposed takeover of Billie — and the deal was dropped in January 2020.
Launching a product in a category that has already seen a tremendous amount of activity — and which now has its fair share of skeptics — might seem like a risky strategy, but it also equips brands with the knowledge of what does and doesn’t work in this market.
“I don’t think we’re going to see [another] Dollar Shave Club or Harry’s pop up and gain that traction,” says Simone, pointing out that brands like Leaf, Oui the People and Hanni do not have oodles of venture capital dollars behind them.
Putting the focus on higher-quality razor handles means these businesses also need to take an opposite approach to revenue generation than their predecessors. This means charging consumers more to get started — Hanni’s all-metal weighted razor, for example, costs $38 compared to Billie’s $9 starter kits — but promising cost savings when it comes to replacing the razor blades themselves.
Simone estimates that Leaf generates about 20 times more revenue from its handles than its razor blades (a standardized commodity product that consumers can easily purchase from anywhere). For brands that focus on making money from cartridge refills, those numbers will be the other way around, with the handles seen as something that can be given away cheaply in order to tie customers into a long-term relationship.
This makes it harder for the safety razor brands to get new customers on board, although Simone argues that once someone is brought into the concept, they often stick around. “And we’re gathering a ton of our customer’s lifetime value on day one,” he says. “So from a cash flow perspective, [we] can be bootstrapped because we’re profitable [from] day one.” To fund its first ever production run of razor handles, Leaf used a crowdfunding campaign to take pre-orders.
Leslie Tessler, the cofounder of Hanni, says she first became convinced of the benefits of single-blade razors when she tried dermaplaning — a beauty treatment where a single, sharp razor is used at a 45 degree angle to remove both fine hairs and dead skin from the surface of the face — in Japan.
“That was what led me to try a single blade on my body, because I was so blown away by how smooth it was. I had just accepted bumpy skin as my skin,” she says. When conducting market research before launching Hanni in May 2021, she discovered she was not alone: many women reported that they “hated shaving”, with the problems they were experiencing ranging from razor burn to the cost of shaving (on average, razors marketed at women cost 11% more than those geared towards men).
“Over the last 60 years, the innovation has been two blades, four blades, five blades, charcoal strips and oscillating heads,” Tessler explains. “All of this overdesign hasn’t really improved a woman’s shaving experience.”
Most people who shave are used to doing so with a cartridge or disposable razor blade. The safety razor, however, requires people to adapt their shaving manner, by reducing pressure and making shorter strokes. It’s not the easiest — or most pain-free — technique to learn.
“For us, the big thing is really letting customers know that there is something better out there, [and] how you use it,” Tessler admits. In Hanni’s case, the approach to consumer education takes a number of forms. The brand’s YouTube channel features videos of Tessler and even Hanni’s customers demonstrating the shaving technique, while in New York, Hanni takes appointments to shave people’s legs at the direct-to-consumer department store, Showfields.
Cartridge and disposable razors still dominate in the $2.1 billion razor market, but over time their popularity has been waning. According to Mintel, sales of shaving and hair removal products are have been on a “sluggish trajectory,” seeing little growth. In 2018, sales of these products declined by almost 4%. COVID, meanwhile, has given people the excuse to shave even less.
In this world, the humble safety razor might make more sense: letting a single razor blade that costs cents rather than dollars go dull and rusty in between shaves hurts far less than a plastic-covered cartridge go to waste.