Internet Retail

Razor blades, once threatened by beards, are learning to coexist with them

Desiree Martin | AFP | Getty Images

The shave is proving harder to kill than John McClane in "Die Hard."

Less than two years ago, the growing ubiquity of hirsute men — and the resulting decline in razor blade sales — led The Washington Post to make a dramatic declaration that beards were "killing the shaving industry." Indeed, even Gillette parent Procter & Gamble groused that the beard trend was detrimental to sales, which at the time were down double digits.

What a difference a year makes. Despite beards being as popular as ever, discount razor blade sales are on the rise — which suggests shaving is learning to coexist happily with the boom in facial hair. In fact, Internet businesses that cater to beard grooming have mushroomed concomitantly in the last few years with web sales of razors.

"The manual shaving category grew by 101 percent over the past two years, which all brands have benefited from," Taylor Stanton, marketing & communications Manager at Slice Intelligence told CNBC in response to an emailed inquiry.

"The online channel has also made it possible for new players like Bevel to emerge and offer shaving products to those who have been underserved by the typical selection at the local grocery store or big box retailer," Stanton added.

Recent data suggest shavers are moving to blades sold online — which are far cheaper than premium brands sold by Schick and Gillette. Surging blade sales on the web recently led the latter to start its own online club, while Unilever recently moved to buy start-up Dollar Shave Club for an estimated $1 billion.

"Analyzing the online market share of shaving companies doesn't tell the full story. The shave clubs, lead by Dollar Shave Club, completely changed how consumers buy razors," Stanton told CNBC.

In a new research report, Slice Intelligence said that with the Dollar Shave acquisition, competitor Harry's "is the razor company to watch." The shaving upstart is actually growing faster year over year than Dollar Shave, Slice says, and is the third-largest shaving brand in the U.S. behind Dollar Shave and Gillette.

The latter two comprised "three-quarters of all sales last year. Still, given Harry's high growth rate, it's already made a successful sortie on Gillette, Dorco and Schick's market share," Slice's analysts wrote in a new report on the breakneck growth of online shaving clubs.

In an April survey, research firm Euromonitor called internet sales of razor blades "the most important story in men's grooming," estimating that web sales hit $342 million last year — the overwhelming bulk of which were razor and blade sales.

However, Slice's research may explain in part why online razor sales have hit a crescendo — many women are also getting in on the action. The firm's data showed that 39 percent of internet buyers of shaving products were women in June, a 7 percent rise since last year.

"Currently Dollar Shave Club is the primary brand marketing to women," Slice's analysts wrote. "Their messaging seems to be working as 57 percent of Shave Club's revenue growth has been driven by female buyers since the start of 2015."

Dollar Shave is clearly ruling the roost, with Euromonitor data showing the company's $153 million in sales is the clear market leader. Slice's research confirmed Dollar Shave's dominance, but noted that Harry's customers spend more per order ($17 per purchase) than Dollar Shave clients ($7 per purchase). The deep-pocketed patrons of Bevel, another shaving start-up, spend nearly $50 per order, Slice's data found.

According to Euromonitor, there's plenty of room for growth, with fewer than 5 percent of U.S. men belonging to an online shaving club. That said, Gillette's foray into the lucrative area is a big wild card, and the growing number of competitors may make it more challenging for Dollar Shave and Harry's.

"The nature of this category is changing as both of the leading shave clubs start to increasingly focus on nonshaving products and the benefits of frequently switching razors instead of seeking to compete primarily through low price," the firm added.