by Kirsten Howard
If you shave, you've probably noticed that the price of razor blades has soared over the last decade. While the razor itself is fairly cheap, the cost of restocking its blades can leave you agog. You’ve been deftly lured into what's known as a “two-part tariff,” a pricing tactic in which a buyer pays a set fee for one thing and then a regular per-unit charge. Browsing the shelves, you might find that a razor costs $10 while an eight-pack of refill cartridges will run you close to $40. But why are razor blades so expensive?
Well, the answer is a combination of market monopoly by a few companies with the equipment to get the job done and the initial difficulty of making something so precise and small.
Razor blade production is a very complicated process, as Jeff Raider, co-founder of online shaving company Harry's, found out when he opted to buy a German factory to make the blades he needed. Only a few companies in the entire world still make razor blades, and those companies supply the big brands almost exclusively.
“Razor blades are really, really difficult to make,” Raider explained. “It actually starts with buying really fine razor steel. You have to grind steel so that it’s very sharp at its tip and very strong at its base. That gives it both stability and a really crisp cutting surface.”
After the metal in the replacement head is heated and cooled down to change "the molecular composition of the steel," Raider says it's then ground at “specific angles that are proprietary to the razor blade manufacturer, in machines that the manufacturers actually make themselves.”
It's also worth noting that there's an exhaustive amount of research that goes into developing razor blades in the first place, which can sometimes take years before a blade is actually brought to market.
“The complexity, length of time, and the cost of the [research and development] process is what factors into cost,” Dr. Kristina Vanoosthuyze, a scientist at the Gillette Innovation Centre, told Boston magazine. “It looks so simple and so intuitive, yet it is so complex in its design and development process. The small details and dimensions go far beyond what the naked eye can see. For the ProGlide, to give you an idea of the scale of consumer testing that we do, 30,000 guys were involved in testing the innovation process.”
Due to this intensive process, the vast majority of smaller companies can’t even begin to make headway unless they create their own (very expensive) equipment, which has given the big shaving companies license to charge whatever they want.
“Historically, the companies that have known how to make razor blades have been able to charge people vastly different prices for razor blades than the actual cost,” says Raider. (Hence the success of companies like Harry's and Dollar Shave Club, which Unilever just purchased for $1 billion.)
So while the razor blade-making system itself hasn’t changed much, the hit buying them is taking on your wallet has.