Procter & Gamble’s Gillette, the market leader, estimates… (George Marks, Retrofile/Getty…)
We can put men on the moon. We can make computers small enough to carry around in our pockets. But we can't make a razor blade that stays sharp longer than a week?
It sounds trivial. But the utter lack of progress on the razor front raises fundamental questions about America's industrial might.
Has the sun set on the age of innovation in this country? Is it possible that American ingenuity has met its match in a relatively modest personal-hygiene product used by millions of consumers?
Or are the likes of Gillette and Schick, which account for about 90% of the replacement-blade market, conspiring to keep razor advances off the shelf to deliberately fleece customers and maintain multibillion-dollar revenue streams?
Either way you look at it, it's not a terribly flattering portrayal of U.S. business.
The global market for all shaving products is forecast to top $33 billion by 2015, according to Global Industry Analysts, a market researcher.
Procter & Gamble's Gillette, the market leader, estimates that about two-thirds of American guys age 15 and older shave with a razor, representing a U.S. market for razors and blades worth more than $2.4 billion a year. Worldwide, that market is more than $14 billion.
Schick says most men shave at least three times a week. Razor-Gator.com, a shaving-related website, figures that a man devotes roughly 3,300 hours of his life to shaving.
With those numbers in mind, you'd think teams of engineers would be busy improving the ways and means of a good shave. For example, water causes corrosion on blades, which contributes to making them dull. Isn't there an alloy, or a coating, to address that?
Moore's Law famously predicted that computer chips will double in processing power every couple of years or so. The result has been breakneck advances in the technology field. The first iPhone was introduced just six years ago, for instance, and we're already up to the iPhone 5.
Oh sure, Gillette and Schick keep adding more features. Gillette says its battery-operated Fusion ProGlide razor "delivers soothing micropulses." Schick says its Hydro Power Select boasts "three vibration settings, easy-to-read indicators and a one-touch control button, allowing men to interact with their razor in a new way."
Micropulses, vibration settings — this they can do. But they can't come up with a blade that stays sharp more than a few days?
"Sure they can," said Jeff Grant, president of Coating Services Group, a Lakeside company that makes scalpels for medical use and thus knows a thing or two about sharp edges. "They could make a ceramic blade that maybe costs $100 and lasts for years."
Well, that sounds good. An eight-pack of Gillette Mach3 Turbo shaving cartridges — one of the more popular razors — runs $24 at Walgreens. If you figure on changing the cartridge once a week, that would mean spending $156 each year on razor blades.
So, yeah, I'd spend $100 for a blade that lasts for two, three or more years.
And that, Grant told me, is exactly why we'll never be offered such a chance by Gillette or Schick.
"They'd sell you one blade and they'd be done," he said. "It's a business decision."
Susan Baba, a Gillette spokeswoman, told me she hadn't heard about any research into ceramic razor blades. But she said the company is dedicated to "figuring out the next stage of razors."
As for the longevity of current blades, Baba said you can't generalize. Some people make a blade last a few days, others can go months without changing cartridges.
"It all depends on the length of your hair, how often you shave, how many strokes you use," Baba said.
Patrick Kane, senior brand manager for the Schick Hydro line, said pretty much the same.
"In general, blade life depends on hair thickness, frequency of shaving, prep usage, pre-shave routine, post-shave routine, technique and brand," he said. "Because of this, blades will wear out faster or slower based on these particular variables."
In any case, you'd think the possibility of longer-lasting blades would represent a huge opportunity for any company that wants in on the razor market. Unfortunately, the barriers to entry are high.
Without the economies of scale enjoyed by Gillette and Schick, it's very difficult for a competitor to leap in with a new product, especially if that product is introduced at the jaw-dropping price of about $100 for a single razor blade.
The math might make sense for a blade lasting years, but not all men will see value in plunking down a C-note for a razor.
So what's a fellow with a 5 o'clock shadow to do? Well, even if you can't get a state-of-the-art blade, you can at least trim your grooming bills.
Among various discount-razor outfits online, a Venice company called Dollar Shave Club will mail you five twin-blade cartridges for just $3 a month, which includes shipping costs. Four- and six-blade razors are available for a little more.
Michael Dubin, the chief executive of privately held Dollar Shave Club, was cagey when I asked him how he can operate so cheaply, or even if his company is profitable. He cited competitive reasons for not answering.
But Dubin shared my frustration about the lack of innovation from the market behemoths.
"The big boys put on a vibrating handle or even a small flashlight, and they call that innovation," he said. "I'd call that superfluous."
I'd call it a pretty good racket.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.