Gillette sharpens its focus on women

Simply churning out men's razors in pretty colors doesn't cut it anymore, so the Boston manufacturer has stepped up research to attract more of the female shaving segment

Cameras capture how Tracy Collins (top) uses a razor while she shaves at Gillette's lab in England, where researchers (above) can also rapidly make prototypes of new razors. The lab is top secret, and visitors must hand over cellphones and cameras. Cameras capture how Tracy Collins (top) uses a razor while she shaves at Gillette's lab in England, where researchers (above) can also rapidly make prototypes of new razors. The lab is top secret, and visitors must hand over cellphones and cameras. (Photos by Gillette)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / January 4, 2009
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READING, England - Inside a top-secret research lab tucked away on the edge of this English town, Gillette has spent decades trying to devise the perfect razor to swipe away the thick stubble of men. Now, in this fortress-like facility 3,000 miles from its Boston headquarters, the company is increasingly thinking about bikini lines, underarms, and sexy smooth legs.

Here, amid cameras and lights that seem better suited to a movie studio, Gillette scientists use the latest 3-D computer technology to study how women move their bodies when shaving. In another wing of the secretive compound (no cellphones, no BlackBerries, no cameras), chemists mix avocado, olive, and kokum butters to create razors that emit fresh fragrances in the shower.

As Gillette tries to extend its grip on the global grooming market, a company that built its reputation tackling hirsute masculinity is trying to conquer the tricky, but rapidly expanding business of understanding what women want. Women's shaving is Gillette's fastest-growing blades and razors division, and Venus, the brand it launched for women in 2001, took in more than a half-billion dollars in sales last year. The Boston shaving giant's owner, Procter & Gamble Co., wants to double that figure in the coming years.

To that end, Venus has stepped up customer research, introduced six new female shaving products in the last four years, and boosted its marketing to women worldwide. Despite the recent success, women's shaving is one area Gillette does not entirely dominate - longtime rival Schick makes the best-selling woman's razor, Intuition - and that has added to the urgency for a company that is not used to being second best.

"Gillette was a male company, and we definitely understand how men shave their face and head," said AG Lafley, chief executive of Procter & Gamble, the Cincinnati consumer products conglomerate best known for products for women such as Tampax and Cover Girl. "But we're still learning about hair removal with women."

Women are immensely more complicated when it comes to shaving. They have 18 times more surface area to shave than men, drier skin, and three different types of hair growing in hard-to-reach places, according to Anne Stewart, director of science at the Gillette Reading Technology Centre. These are some of the challenges facing the chemists and engineers working to create the ultimate female razor.

For 50 years, Gillette has used the Reading facility to invent and test razors in their early stages because executives wanted another research and development lab, and the United Kingdom has served as a secondary hub. Men have been its sole mission for most of the center's existence. Even some of the early products for women were essentially male razors in prettier colors.

That began to change with the introduction of Venus in 2001, and even more so after Schick unveiled the revolutionary Intuition in 2003. The first razor that lathers and shaves in one step, Intuition now has a 15.5 percent share of the global women's shaving market. Gillette has nicked off much of Schick's lead - its most popular female razor, Venus Breeze, is capturing a 14 percent market share, and the full line of Venus razors sells better than any brand in the world. But the fierce competition has kicked into overdrive Gillette's efforts to take a clear lead in innovative women's shaving products.

"It caused the organization to really reaffirm and reinvest in leading and designing for women," said Jennifer Dauer, vice president of Gillette's female hair removal business and Venus franchise leader. "This is more intensely competitive than men's in core markets."

It's also as intensely well guarded. Concerns about spying by rivals creates a sense of extreme secrecy that borders on paranoia. Almost everything is confidential in Reading's cluster of brick buildings, from the number of workers to the size of the facility. Each door has different security access and the rare visitor (including the first reporter to see innovations for women) must hand over electronics before entering.

In one building, consumers test new products in small rooms with sterile white showers and sinks. Getting into this area is harder than getting into Fort Knox. Consumers invited to test products must ring a special buzzer and provide their individual panelist number before being allowed past the first set of secure doors.

Inside, Tracy Collins, a 44-year-old swim instructor from Reading, took off her blue terry cloth robe and filled the tub with warm water. Clad in a black Speedo bathing suit, Collins picked up a bar of soap and began lathering her legs. Collins comes in three times a week to shave here, where waterproof cameras hover over her head and in every corner of the room. Sometimes, the razors are hooked up to devices so specialists can measure friction as Collins presses them against her skin.

"In the past, I always used male razors, so it's great to be part of making ones for women even better," said Collins, who receives a stipend for her participation.

Consumers like Collins have helped Gillette divide women into four distinct categories - perfect shave seekers (no missed hairs), skin pamperers, pragmatic functionalists, and E-Z seekers - and design products suited for each of them.

In Reading, scientists use high-speed cameras that can snap thousands of frames per second to study how blades hit a woman's skin for optimum hair removal: Microns can make the difference between a good and bad shave. In a "rapid prototyping" lab downstairs, with bizarre contraptions making gurgling sounds that evoke Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, workers use lasers to turn liquid UV resin into solid plastic razor prototypes. The ability to churn out prototypes overnight - along with identifying different categories of female shavers - has helped accelerate the pace of innovation for women. In recent years, Gillette has introduced 20 percent more products for women compared with men.

It's no longer simply making a male razor pink. Venus Embrace, the newest model unveiled in 2008, is a five-bladed contraption that offers many different features from its male counterpart, Fusion. Embrace includes a ribbon of moisture, a rounded cartridge, a different pivot point of the cartridge adjusted to follow women's curves better, and a soft-gel handle with seven grip points to reflect the many ways women hold the razor during their shaving routine.

"The biggest challenge facing P&G in terms of growing this business in the US is just coming up with the 'next new thing' before Schick does, and making sure they spend enough money advertising Venus, or its successor, so they capture more market share," said Wendy Nicholson, an analyst with Citi Investment Research. "The biggest challenge in international markets is in trying to get women to use a razor and blade."

For its part, Schick, based in Milford, Conn., said it plans to stay on top of the women's business.

"Schick will continue to offer equity building programs and innovative products that meet consumers' unmet needs," said Jackie Burwitz, a spokeswoman for Energizer, the parent company of Schick.

P&G says its acquisition of Gillette has brought a better understanding of women to the Boston shaving giant and helped expose Venus to more people who can influence consumers, like beauty magazine editors.

In Reading and at other sites, P&G is devoting more resources to emerging hair removal technologies for women, which is an estimated $10 billion industry worldwide. Gillette already has an agreement with Palomar Medical Technologies Inc. of Burlington, Mass., to develop an at-home light-based hair-removal device for women, though the companies will not release details on a launch date.

P&G is looking to use its fragrance and skin care expertise from Olay and other lines to bring razors to the next level. This could mean someday equipping women's razors with antiaging or anticellulite properties.

"We want to push the boundaries of what shaving could be," said Stewart, of the Gillette Reading Technology Centre. "But it needs to pass the tests of credibility and feasibility. Anything is possible."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

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