A Close Shave

After my cow adventure, you might be thinking that this title is a metaphor. It’s not. Yesterday I had my first ever shave using a classic safety razor.

Even when I lived in the US, the price of razor cartridges for my Mach 3 was an issue, and I often conserved them by shaving infrequently or using them even after their “lubricant strip” lost all its magic color. It’s not like three or four dollars is the biggest deal, but who wants to keep tossing that much money away over and over again, especially when a full beard suits me so well?

In Georgia, I could never quite bring myself to shell out the 40 lari it would cost for a 4-pack of razor cartridges. I’ve been shaving for the last two years using only those cartridges I brought with me from the US; finally I broke down and bought the relatively cheaper disposables, but they really, really suck. Razor burn all over the place.

In the back of my mind, whenever I encountered such high prices for razors, I wondered to myself how Georgians could even afford to shave.

I remember back when the Gillette cartridges had only two blades; I remember using my dad’s Sensor razors to shave as a teenager (when I barely needed to) and how, when Gillette upgraded to the Turbo, the new cartridges wouldn’t fit into the old handles and everyone had to buy a new handle for no real reason.

“No real reason” is a great summary of the razor market in the US. Corporations constantly “upgrade” perfectly good products and customers have to pay for them while reaping no actual benefits. Yeah, the Mach 3 was a little better than the Sensor, but the Quattro and the Fusion are actually worse. I think the idea is that customers buy the newest, shiniest thing without real regard to its actual function. I can say this: it works. Gillette makes boatloads of money for no real reason.

Back in my late teens and early 20s, I was an occasional reader of men’s magazines. It was Jessica Biel’s Gear cover that hooked me, but articles on things like men’s hygiene and fashion kept me interested. Knowing four different tie knots and when to wear them may not enhance my life a great deal, but it does let me pretend to be a grown-up, at least to myself. Anyway, men’s magazines often run articles about shaving, and each article tends to have a different perspective (I have found no consensus, for instance, on whether the type of razor or the type of shaving cream is most important), but one thing that seems universal is that there is a sort of reverence for “classic” shaving methods. Straight razors are the gold standard, but who has time to risk all those hospital visits just to develop a minor and obsolete skill?

No, the safety razor is the way to go. I actually considered buying one of these about five years ago, but I didn’t follow through because I had trouble sorting through the various expensive options (they seem to start at $30 and go up from there) that the internet presented to me so I gave up. Why go to all that trouble and expense to buy something that I had no idea if I would even like just because men’s magazine authors liked to wax nostalgic about a time when Manly Men risked death every time they shaved?

So I was in the Kutaisi bazaar yesterday, and just when Tea finally found a spice vendor who sold nutmeg, I noticed a bunch of safety razors on one of the tables, sitting placidly amidst the knives and batteries and extension cords, never suspecting that they were about to change my life forever. I picked on up and examined it; the salesman directed my attention to a superior model. Tea came over and we talked about which safety razor and which blades were the best; Tea and the salesman had differing opinions but I trusted the salesman because he was conspicuously clean-shaven so I assumed he knew what he was talking about. The safety razor with five blades cost two lari and fifty tetri – so, less than two dollars.

And so, again, we have an example of a thing in Georgia that costs an order of magnitude less than it costs in the US. Two and a half lari for what will probably be several months’ worth of shaving is something that Georgian men can definitely afford. It’s something that most people in the world with the desire to shave can afford.

I’ve been on about this in several other market sectors – pharmaceuticals, cell phone and internet service come to mind – but it seems like there has been a fundamental failure of capitalism in the US: in these sectors, instead of providing a better product at lower prices, US consumers are treated to roughly equivalent products at much higher prices.

And while I can blame the FDA for the prices of medicines, and the FCC for the price of cell phone service, there’s no government agency involved in regulating or licensing razors for shaving. Very simply put, what you have is a market failure – an example of capitalism being broken.

I got home and shaved with the safety razor. There was a bit of a learning curve – I got two very small cuts and my beard isn’t quite as even as I like it – but overall it was a fast, close, and pleasant shave. I got much less razor burn than usual because the shaving required fewer passes (I have relatively thick hair and cartridges usually clog very quickly, meaning I have to shave over the same patch several times to get it all). Cleaning the blade afterward was easy, because the blade itself can be detached from the razor so there’s nowhere for hair to get stuck.

In short, I feel like I’ve been missing out my whole life. (Well, not my whole life, but certainly since I started shaving.) Just another thing I would never have discovered if I hadn’t left the consumerist bubble that most Americans are trapped in forever.

My new safety razor and blades. Yes, the blades are called “Sputnik” – I’m shaving like an astronaut!

The Russian says “Teflon Coated”, which means presumably this razor is both awesome AND bulletproof.

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8 Responses to A Close Shave

  1. The drug store chains left Fusion in the dust last year and came out with store-brand 6-blade disposables. We’re inching ever closer to SNL’s “Mach 14” parody from back in 2000. Coming soon, the Lady Spishak Mach 20:

    Aptly, at a glance, TEFLONOVOE looked like “technophobe.”

    • panoptical says:

      Good lord. I basically hated everything after three. Technophobe indeed.

      • FWIW, the Fusion works better for me than Mach III–not because of the number of blades, of course, but the angle and spacing. When I was shaving my head, I would alternate between that and a cheap off-brand triple blade, Super Max 3, which cut closer but was also more prone to carve out gouges. For just my face, I’m happy enough with an electric, and manage to find stray packs of Bic Metal often enough for use when I’ve skipped shaving over the weekend.

  2. Choiseul says:

    “Very simply put, what you have is a market failure – an example of capitalism being broken.”

    There’s a sizable niche in the shaving industry for classic razors. It’s always existed. A Google search reveals a dozen reputable sites for ordering such products. Quite a few forums devote themselves to classic shaving, where users share experiences and offer advice to newbies. Certainly this has been the product of capitalism, if nothing else. After all, corporations manufacture these products, and consumers creating a buzz is the life-blood of any successful brand.

    Simply because a majority of men are too apathetic toward discovering better shaving techniques doesn’t mean capitalism has somehow failed. Capitalism has indeed succeeded in allowing a small group to funnel their money into a thriving corner of the shaving industry. Nobody denies that Gillette sells junk, and their massive advertising budget allows them the ability to drive their latest razors into the minds of Super Bowl viewers. But if you’re too lazy to search on the internet for better products, then it’s your fault.

    “Just another thing I would never have discovered if I hadn’t left the consumerist bubble that most Americans are trapped in forever.”

    But what about the men’s magazines you said you enjoy reading? As you said, these magazines frequently recommend classic shaving products. Nothing is more consumerist than a fashion magazine. You just chose to ignore the advice. Then you discovered a cheap safety razor at a bazaar in Georgia and suddenly capitalism is the reason for all the money you wasted on Gillette. No, you’re the reason. You just never bothered to find alternatives. For $40 you could have picked up a Merkur and a box of 100 blades, enough to last a year or longer.

    I’m actually surprised you didn’t connect Gillette to the Iraq War. They’ve been responsible for numerous war crimes and massacres.

    • panoptical says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’ve updated the post to contain a link to the Wikipedia page on market failure – a piece of economic jargon that I neglected to realize would be unfamiliar to the casual reader.

      As it regards to your response: market failure specifically refers to situations that violate the theory that the free market will always produce the most efficient outcome. Very simply put, “most efficient” means that participants in a free market economy will, in theory, always get more for less as opposed to participants in non-free markets or non-capitalist economies.

      So “market failure” as a technical term means that consumers are not getting more for less.

      In this case, getting more for less would mean that customer satisfaction with their razors would be going up and prices would be going down. Instead, prices keep going up and satisfaction appears to be stagnating or decreasing.

      Importantly, the concept of market failure is macroeconomic – it is concerned with groups of people acting over time – and thus does not rest on the decisions or foibles of the individual. Yes, I was too lazy to look for alternatives to my Mach 3; no, that does have any bearing on the question of whether a market failure in shaving products has occurred.

      For $40 you could have picked up a Merkur and a box of 100 blades, enough to last a year or longer.

      Which is still more than ten times what a safety razor and 100 blades cost in Georgia. Because Americans overpay for almost everything because Americans, despite their conceits to the contrary, live in a society in which markets don’t work for the greater good and the economy is rigged to support the few at the top.

  3. mantic59 says:

    I may be able to help you with the learning curve. I have a bunch of videos about how to shave with traditional kit. http://www.youtube.com/user/mantic59

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always had a huge beef with shaving, dressing the part, and comforting to whatever is / was considered proper. The whole thing is so messed up. Having to put a sharp blade to your face every morning seems unnatural to me. Wearing a constricting tie and monkey suit, the same. Unnatural.

    I’ve try many types of machines, many types of blades, and have come to this conclusion. They all suck. The best shave I ever had even though it was the scariest was a barbershop straight blade shave like Robert Deniro as Al Capone in The Untouchables had. When the barber cut him, holy shit, tense movie moment.

    Anyway, if you got to do it, pay a guy a buck and a quarter and enjoy shooting the shit with the boys down at the Kutaisi barbershop. You might not be able to talk baseball and about those damn Yankees, but at least you’ll get a nice shave and hot towel.

    This comment brought to you by Steve, a man who thinks it is 1920 and we all live in time vacuum.

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