The Infinite Blades Hypothesis

How many blades does your razor have?

If you’re a customer of one of the two leading brands and you’re on their latest products, it’s likely to be either four or five. Gillette and Schick (known as Wilkinson Sword outside the US) have been waging a razor war for decades, trying to take hold of a global industry worth about $25 billion a year. Gillette’s latest, the Fusion, has five blades; Schick’s Quattro has four, but the company also offers an upgraded five-blade version of a previous model, the Hydro (marketing a five-blade Quattro would make little sense, because quattro means four in Italian and their ads are built around a hand showing four fingers).

It’s a grueling fight, over which both companies spend billions each year in marketing and research. Just manufacturing the tools to build a specific razor may cost upwards of $250 million. It’s gone through the courts as well: Gillette sued Schick in 2003, claiming the Quattro was infringing one of their patents, but they lost. Nevertheless, Gillette still holds the lion’s share of the market.

Razors are prominent members of a group of products known as loss leaders. You might have noticed that the razor handle, which normaly includes two blade cartridges, is very conveniently priced. It’s basically free, to the point that the product has to be priced in such a way that it doesn’t become cheaper to buy razors handles just for the blades. This is designed to conquer you as a customer for the lucrative replacement cartridges, which are so expensive that they consistently rate among the world’s most shoplifted products, chiefly because of their value-to-size ratio. In other words, Gillette and Schick are willing to take a loss on the initial sale so they can reap the benefits from you later on.

But how many blades do you really need?
Gillette introduced the “safety razor”, so called because the blade is encased is such a way that it’s harder to cut yourself, back in 1904. It took them 67 years to add a second blade, in 1971. They then launched the Mach 3 in 1998 and the Fusion, with five blades, in 2006 (they skipped the four-blade generation because of patents). According to a tipically reliable Internet source, this creates a hyperbolic curve that will give us a razor with infinite blades sometime around 2026, but don’t spend too much time thinking about it. It’s interesting to note that in the early years, Gillette didn’t pursue a loss leading strategy: in fact, the razor was quite expensive. But King C. Gillette didn’t care because he had patents to protect his invention, so no one could sell cheap knockoff blades for his razor. Moreover, the blades themselves were made of carbon steel, so they would rust quickly: people were just forced to buy them frequently. Only in 1965, and after Schick introduced its own stainless steel blades, did Gillette finally make the switch, even though they had long held a patent on non-rusting blades.

But although Gillette has funded a number of studies that supposedly confirm the benefits of multiple blades, wether they actually produce a better shave is a matter of opinion. Two blades are good because the first raises hairs and the second cuts them. Additional blades could potentially just give you more nicks and ingrown hairs, depending on your shaving technique. Nevertheless, a six-blade razor is already on the market:

Not happy with just having six blades, the folks that sell this even put a shaving cream dispenser in the handle, making it just about the most ridiculous grooming item you can buy.

It gets trickier. You might have noticed that both Gillette and Schick also sell “power” versions of their razors, that use one AAA battery. It powers a tiny motor, similar to those used in phones for vibration, which supposedly facilitates the shave. The battery is included: Gillette gives you a Duracell, while Schick gives you an Energizer, the two top-selling brands in consumer batteries. Coincidence? No. Gillette bought Duracell in 1996 (they are now both owned by manufacturing giant Procter & Gamble), and Schick was bought by Energizer in 2003. When this happened, Gillette pre-emptively struck by launching a battery powered version of its Mach 3 razor, in late 2003. Schick quickly responded with a power version of its Quattro model. I am really not sure wether a vibrating razor is beneficial to your face, and Gillette has even been convicted for false advertising over this, but it’s interesting to note that both makers are selling you their own batteries, hoping you’ll buy more in the future (of course, while you’re forced to buy the correct blades for your razor, any battery will work, so brand loyalty is somewhat diminished here). If it all sounds exploitative, it’s because it is.

Another glorious field of application for loss leading is printers. Have you ever complained about how expensive ink cartridges and toners are? The reason they sound so expensive is that they cost a significant portion of the price of the printers themselves, which are sold at a loss. But if you buy the printer you’ll be committed to buying consumables, so manufacturers are willing to give you a bargain on the hardware just to rake you in. So, next time you’re out shopping for an ink cartridge or a toner, and you find it costs half your printer, at least you’ll know that the right question is not Why does the toner cost so much?, but rather Why was the printer so cheap?

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The Snooze Dilemma

Waking up is hard to do.

So, to snooze or not to snooze? Well, it turns out that snoozing, like many enjoyable things in life, is critically bad for you. And you shouldn’t do it. Here’s why.

First of all, waking up is hard because your body goes through a series of changes. While you sleep, temperature, heart rate and blood pressure all decrease, and you get high on serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that explains why your bed feels so much cozier in the morning than at night. If you align yourself properly with your circadian rhythm, by waking up at roughly the same time every day, your body knows. And in the hour before alarm time, it starts to drag you out of that pit by warming up your metabolism. This is an ideal situation, and explains why you sometimes open your eyes just minutes before your designated wake up time. If, nevertheless, you’re still sleepy and hit the snooze button, this gets in the way of that natural reboot process, creating a chemical imbalance in your body, which is now pumping dopamine, the antagonist of serotonin. The end result is a befuddled mess. On the other hand, if you’re not getting enough sleep in the first place and you’re off your natural rhythm, snoozing might become irresistible. But in this case, you risk falling back into deep sleep, only to be ripped out of it nine minutes later. That works against every natural process evolution has devised to ease you out of sleep, and wreaks havoc with your metabolism. Also, it generally prompts you to just snooze again. And again.

In other words, snooze time is never good. Unfortunately, when you need to make that assessment you’re a groggy half-human who’d kill for sleep. But snoozing is not always a snap judgment: some people construct elaborate snooze routines with multiple alarms that start up to an hour before their actual wake up time, thinking that’s the only way they can make it out of bed. Instead, they just subject themselves to an hour of useless, fragmented sleep that does nothing to soothe their bodies.

But wait, why is snooze time traditionally fixed at exactly nine minutes? Apparently it has to do with standardized gears inside alarm clocks in the 1950s: the snooze cog had to fit with existing ones and it could be set at either 9 or 10 minutes. The choice fell on 9, because 10 minutes was thought to be enough to “fall back into deep sleep”.
Another explanation that I like better has to do with cheap electronic components: with a 9 minute snooze, a digital alarm clock only has to “watch” the last digit to know when to go off again. This allows for simpler circuitry to be devoted to the function, and ultimately makes the clock cheaper to make.

Resisting the temptation to snooze is not easy. It’s an interesting problem because it creates a conflict between your present self (“I want to wake up on time tomorrow”) and your future self (“I want to sleep right now”), a staple of behavioral economics. So, alarm clock manufacturers have learned about this and sell an array of devices that nudge you into waking up. The Clocky alarm, for example, lets you snooze once, and then literally comes to life, jumps off your nightstand, and finds a place to hide, all the while blasting an ear-ripping alarm sound. You’re then forced to go find it and switch it off.
The Puzzle alarm is even more taxing on your fragile, unstable cognitive functions: the moment it goes off, it explodes a jigsaw puzzle and won’t stop until you have correctly solved it. But honestly, I don’t think anyone actually wants to incorporate a ridiculous-looking, self-hiding alarm into their lifestyle: a week into using it your rational, present self will just go ‘what the hell’ and give up. By then you’ll either have learned the lesson or gone back to snoozing.

Still, the best anti-snooze alarm of all is, hands down, the SnuzNLuz. It gets you on your toes by making donations to political causes you hate, every time you hit the button.

Alas, it doesn’t really exist. It has a product page at Thinkgeek.com, but it’s nothing more than an April Fool’s prank. But, ThinkGeek has turned joke products into reality before, so you never know.

Perhaps the SnuzNLuz has taken a cue from Stickk, a website that encourages you to commit to a goal by setting up a financial stake. No wonder, it was founded by a group of Yale economists and it capitalizes on the fact that we are all instinctively loss averse.
If you want to commit to going the gym regularly, for example, you can set up a weekly attendance goal and create a contract; whenever you fail to report in, Stickk will send some of your money to an anti-charity of your choice (options include the NRA, the Pro-Choice Foundation, and the Manchester United Fan Club).

So, what should you do? At the risk of sounding obnoxious, you should really try to get enough sleep in the first place: chronic sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do to your body, as it impairs your cognitive functions, your memory and your learning abilities. And you should never snooze anyway, not even when you’d sell your soul for five more minutes. How? By understanding that under no circumstances, and in absolutely no way, snoozing is going to make your day any better. Yes, you’ll get that brief, blissful feeling of being wrapped into the sheets again, but you’ll pay the price. We’re not good at resisting temptation, even when we know that doing so will pay off, but it’s never too late too learn. People who can delay gratification do better in life.
You might just start by learning not to snooze.