A Blade Too Far

Gillette's Fusion gives a close shave, but the price cuts deep

About 20 years ago, I laid down my razor. It was a Trac II -- state-of-the-art, twin-blade technology at the time. (I still remember when they added the lubricating strip -- brilliant!) Shortly afterward, the razor companies launched their bizarre arms race. Pivot heads were followed by spring-loaded blades. Mach 3 begat Mach 3 Turbo, and was countered by Quattro. Now there's Fusion, Gillette's five-bladed wonder that hit the stores back in January. To believe the TV ads, all this was necessary because beard hairs require ever more blades and technology to coax them out for snipping. I just watched from the sidelines, rubbing my beard in bemusement.

But recently, faced with the encroachment of middle age and more than a few gray hairs, I decided to return to the world of shaving. I figured I would pick up where I left off, with my trusty twin-blade. But then someone suggested this was an opportunity to put cutting-edge razor technology to the test. What if Gillette's R&D labs really had cracked the secrets of the beard-cheek boundary? My face, preserved as a kind of old-growth forest, would be the perfect proving ground.

I ventured forth to the local drug store and selected a new Fusion Power razor and pack of eight replacement blades. The clerk rang me up: $39.98, before taxes. Hello? Good thing my employer is paying for this little exercise. In my household, $40 is what you pay for a month of cable TV, not a grooming tool.

Apparently I'm not alone on that score: There are signs men are balking at Fusion's high price tag. Despite big discounts and massive advertising, sales of Gillette's latest wonder have fallen short of expectations, some analysts say. This is bad news for Procter & Gamble Co. (PG ), which paid $57 billion last year to buy Gillette, largely for its ability to rake in unprecedented profits with each increase in razor price and blades. On Aug. 2 the company reported 36% higher quarterly earnings, and put a rosy spin on razor sales.

Placing cost concerns aside, I lather up. The first point I'd like to make about shaving with five blades is that it's hard to tell where to put them. With two blades, the business end of the razor is thin enough that you can place it where the beard begins and start pulling. But the blades in the Fusion are embedded in a device that seems to cover my entire face (O.K., it's maybe a half-inch wide, but still). I guess this is why they added the single Precision Trimmer blade on the top of the razor. What I really don't get, though, is the "power" in the battery-operated version, Fusion Power. Push a button and the razor hums. How this helps the morning clear-cut escapes me.

For kicks, I shave one side with the Fusion and the other with my old Trac II. The Fusion side is definitely smoother. But eight times smoother? That's the difference between the $3.50 I've paid per Fusion cartridge and the 40 cents I pay per twin-blade cartridge.

I know, Gillette says these new blades last longer. Maybe even a month longer. But for a guy who insists on squeezing every last gasp out of a can of Barbasol, each Fusion cartridge would have to last about a year to justify its price. I'm also left wondering, how do you know when the blades are shot? If one goes, can the other four plug along for a while, like a 747 flying on three engines?

My advice to Gillette: Keep cutting the price. And think about that name. "Mach 3" speaks of power and, of course, three blades. And it's hard to misinterpret "Trac II" -- there are two tracks, and you can guess that each one has a blade. That's what I'll be using once my expense-account allotment of Fusion cartridges runs out. The good news is, I think I can milk them until about 2009.

By Dan Beucke, with reporting by Robert Berner

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