To call Marcel Bich an also-ran may bring his heirs storming from the parapets calling us English pig-dogs, and perhaps rightly so. The man was one of the giants of twentieth century capitalism, a pioneer of mass production, and an unqualified winner in almost every game he entered. Almost every game. So with ambivalence in our hearts and a wary eye on the drawbridge, we march gently into the tale of the one major market where Bich’s company could not find a path to victory – razors.
By the time Bic decided to sell razors in America in 1975, it had already trounced Gillette once and was well on its way to a second rout. Starting in the 1950s, Bic’s disposable ballpoint pens had laid waste to Gillette’s Paper Mate line (remember the Write Bros. brand, anyone? Me too, but just barely.) In the early ’70s, Bic’s lighters went up against Gillette’s then market-leading Cricket disposable lighters, eventually unseating them on the strength of an indelible tagline – “Flick My Bic” – and lower price-points. So, Bic was ascendant and had reason to be cocky when they decided to take on their fierce rival in its sweet spot. It was a bold move, but Marcel Bich was nothing if not bold.
Actually, we are just assuming he was bold. We don’t really know much about him as a person. He was born in Turin in 1914 to a French engineer. In the 1940s, he moved to Paris and became a French citizen, also inheriting a baronial title courtesy of a great-grandfather who we presume did something distinguished a hundred years earlier, which is when the title was originally conferred. Marcel worked as a director of production at an English pen and ink maker, starting his own business called Société Bic with a partner in 1945. In 1950, he licensed use of a ballpoint pen technology from its Hungarian patent-holder, Laszlo Biro, and began mass-producing low cost pens in a factory in north Paris. One measure of his success in mass production: His pens sold for one three-hundredth the cost of earlier “biros” made by an English manufacturer.
Having mastered the art of producing high volume, low cost, disposable products, Bich entered, and won, the cigarette lighter market. So, when he set his sights on the American razor market, the guys in the Gillette boardroom were well aware. To them, the Frenchman’s gaze must have seemed like the Eye of Sauron beaming across the fields of Mordor. Their pen business was running dry, they were getting burned in the lighter space, damned if they were going to be skinned in the razor game, the very core of their business.
But they were vulnerable. To that point (this is 1975), their model was to sell shaver “systems” – disposable razors in cartridges for use with a permanent handle. The Trac II had been introduced in ’71. Bic’s offering would be a fully disposable razor, handle and all. Would the American male accept a disposable razor? Would he prefer it?
Good God, the Gillette guys hoped not. The margins on disposables would be far slimmer than the cartridge line. Gillette would much rather just sell blades. In fact, the “razors-and-blades” model that they’d perfected had become a classic money-minting blueprint that would later be applied in products as diverse as printers and toner and cell phones and wireless carriers. But they couldn’t risk ceding any territory to the interlopers. They marshaled their resources to develop a quality disposable razor that could compete with, and beat, Bic’s inevitable entry.
And their resources were considerable. Gillette took shaving very seriously, more seriously than Bic. Always committed to extensive consumer research, Gillette’s R&D lab is the sort of place where shaving men are observed through two way mirrors and recorded by miniature cameras, where nicks are counted, where the characteristics of cut whiskers are measured, and where more is known about what happens when a blade touches a man’s face than anyone outside a serial slasher. We can laugh all we want (and we want to laugh a lot) at the seemingly absurd escalations in blade count and the microscopic reorientation of the lubricating strip, but there is hard science behind Gillette’s razor design improvements, however incremental.
And by the mid-70s, there was over seventy years of corporate history behind it, too. While the guys in the Gillette boardroom fretted, the guys in the lab coats came through. The Good News twin-blade disposable razor was released in ’76, going head-to-head with Bic’s disposable shaver introduced a few months earlier. With the Gillette reputation behind it, the Good News and it’s progeny, the Plus and the Pivot, proceeded to dominate the category, consigning Bic to a sub-20% market share by the early 80s.
What Happened Next?
Bic has never given up the fight, bless their Gallic souls. (No “surrender monkeys” here.) They’ve continued to sell their disposable razors while also trying to make inroads in the shaving “systems” market, to minimal effect.
Where Are They Now?
Baron Marcel Bich was a publicity-averse recluse whose last interview was given thirty years before his death in 1994. His heirs continue to occupy leadership positions in Société Bic, over which the Bich family maintains a controlling interest.
Bic is the clear market leader in disposable pens and lighters, while proudly and indefatigably wearing the badge of also-ran in the market for razors, with a market share typically under 10%. That’s good enough for third place in a race where Schick consistently finishes second and Gillette, with market share in the 70%-80% range, always wins.
Marcel Bich did not invent the ballpoint pen, the lighter, or the razor but he competed forcefully in all of those markets and his company dominates two today. The man’s particular genius was in mastering the delicate balance of forces that go into making high volume, low cost, disposable products. What form that mastery took is as much a mystery as was the man himself. The historical record does not point to any particular innovation or operational efficiency at work in the Paris factories. His obit in London’s Independent merely refers to “alchemy” and “magic.”
But we’ve got to ascribe his failure in the razor market to something. We can’t just say the magic failed, the elements refused to turn to gold. What was it?
Well, we’ve got a control group here, fortunately, and we can readily identify the key factor: Male vanity. When it came to writing and lighting, men proved more than happy to swap out their Montblancs and Zippos for the convenience of the cheap plastic throwaway. When it came to the razor, they seemed willing to go only so far.
They would pay more for the incremental superiority in features one gets in a system razor, and those who did venture into the fully disposable line would maintain a vestige of style by sticking with the company whose name conveyed tradition and quality. In the transient world of the whisker – gone today, here tomorrow – there’s apparently some comfort to be gained in the slight feeling of permanence conveyed by the sight of the razor handle resting on the medicine cabinet shelf.
Final note: This story could well change in the new century as the Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s, and other companies offering mail-order blades at rock bottom prices on a subscription model may radically reconfigure men’s habits in this category. Soon enough (possibly as soon as your next shave) Gillette may well be the also-ran.
See Also: Schick