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A New Equal Right: The Close Shave



Sensor for Women delivers it with a radical shape

Jill Shurtleff has shed blood in the line of duty. Or more precisely, her legs have. The only female industrial designer in Gillette Co.'s shaving division, Shurtleff was handed a key assignment five years ago: Take a fresh look at the women's shaving market, a niche that had long been neglected at male-oriented Gillette. So Shurtleff went to her local drugstore, bought every women's razor she could find, and tried them herself. Dozens of Band-Aids later, she came to a startling conclusion: None worked very well. "They were ergonomically terrible for women," she says. "I realized there had to be a better way."

Shurtleff's radical solution is the Sensor for Women. Introduced last summer, the $3.99 razor sold 7.6 million units in the first six months--far more than the number that Gillette had budgeted for the entire first year. With sales of $40 million in just those six months, including razor blades, Gillette appears to have a $100 million winner for 1993.

The product has easily elbowed aside the former U.S. market leader in women's shaving systems, Personal Touch, made by Warner-Lambert Co.'s Schick Div. An even more astonishing measure of success: Despite its midyear introduction, Sensor for Women garnered 60% of its market in 1992, according to Information Resources Inc., a Chicago market-research outfit.

POOR LIGHT. Much of the razor's popularity can be traced to its startlingly different design. Flat and shaped like a white wafer with a green translucent center, it doesn't resemble anything else on the market. Like many successful designs, it represents a fundamentally new solution to an unmet consumer need. In plain English, it works better--something many women recognize right away. "It's easier to hold in the shower because it has a wide handle," says Terri Dietz, a homemaker and mother of two in Marblehead, Mass. "And it's easier to use under your arms and in hard-to-reach places."

That's the kind of reaction that Shurtleff was aiming for. A 31-year-old graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Shurtleff started at Gillette in 1984. She redesigned the handle for the Trac II in 1988. But in designing the new women's razor, she decided to ignore existing products and start with a clean slate. She began with a basic question: How do women shave?

The short answer from Gillette researchers was: very differently from men. The average American woman shaves nine times more surface area than a man, repeats the process 2.5 times a week, and changes blades 10 times a year. And unlike men, who shave in front of a well-lit mirror, most women perform their ritual in a slippery, often poorly lit tub or shower. Women also shave parts of the body they can't see well, such as underarms and backs of thighs. Not surprisingly, Gillette found that most women complained about nicks and cuts and viewed shaving as an unpleasant chore.

Gillette and its rivals had long marketed women's razors, starting with Gillette's own Milady Decollet e in 1915. But most were simple variants of the traditional, T-shaped razor. "The general approach was to take a man's razor, change the handle a bit, color it pink, and say, 'Here, honey, this is for you,'" says John M. Darman, director of new shaving products at Gillette. Most women shunned the so-called women's razors, opting instead to use hubby's razor or cheap disposables made for men.

Shurtleff decided that the T shape, with its long, thin handle, was all wrong for women. It was designed to provide men with the fine-motor control needed to shave a face. But when used in hard-to-see places by women, that same ease of rotation often resulted in the razor being held at an incorrect angle. And a badly angled blade is the cause of most cuts, especially around sensitive ankles and knees.

The Sensor for Women's flat handle, explains Shurtleff, is designed to "align the cartridge with the hand." With two fingers on top and the thumb on the bottom, she adds, the shaver has more control over the blade's angle. The handle's concave center aids tactile control and also guides the shaver's hand into the best position. The wavy indentations on the handle help improve the grip.

To emphasize the break with past women's razors, Shurtleff and her colleagues wanted to avoid the stereotypical pink color. Hence the white base and aqua center, intended to evoke a clean, watery feeling. Stereotyping was also an issue in naming the new product. Lady Sensor was discarded as laden with negative emotions. Sensor for Women was seen as more honest and direct.

Shurtleff's design posed a number of manufacturing challenges. The green handle insert was a particularly thorny one. Getting a piece of plastic that thick to be crystal-clear gave Gillette engineers fits. Shurtleff rejected a cheaper, two-piece insert because water could leak in and cause the plastic to cloud. It took months to devise a cost-effective solution.

BIG BRUTES. The unusual design had to overcome skeptics both inside and outside Gillette. When Shurtleff presented it to top managers, she says, some of the men "grabbed it like a club." Women execs caught on immediately.

When the razor was first shown to a focus group in Chicago, Shurtleff was sitting behind a two-way mirror. "You should have seen the expressions on their faces," she recalls. The new shape startled them and they looked at the razor in puzzlement. But two weeks later, when the panel of women met again after using the razors at home, Shurtleff says, "they didn't want to give them back. It was phenomenal."

TOO SLIPPERY? Not everyone at first applauded the design. "I immediately disliked it on aesthetic grounds," says Stacy A. Walsh, an industrial designer with Smart Design Inc., a New York design house. She believes that a rubbery material might have been better for the bathroom than the razor's hard plastic. But after trying it, she confesses, "I was surprised, because it works very well. It gave me a tactile understanding of where my hand was."

Sensor for Women uses an almost identical cartridge to the extremely successful original Sensor, which broke new technological ground when it was introduced in 1990. The Sensor's twin blades are each mounted on tiny springs, allowing them to freely move in and out, reducing nicks and cuts.

Gillette intends to boost advertising for Sensor for Women this spring, traditionally a period of heavy market activity as snow-weary women get set for bare legs and beachwear. And while most new products generate losses for a year or two, Gillette's Darman says the razor is already in the black. Shurtleff says her design has succeeded "beyond my wildest dreams. It's any designer's fantasy." Now she can shift her Band-Aid box to the back of the medicine chest.Mark Maremont in Boston

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