How hipsters are wounding a U.S. business icon

An American business icon is falling on hard times, and it’s all because of sideburns, mutton chops and other hairy symbols of male hipsterdom. 

Gillette's problem may not clear up anytime soon, given many young American men's preference for wild and wooly facial hair. Coinciding with the craze for extreme facial-hair styling is the popularity of "Movember," a campaign to raise prostate cancer awareness in which men grow a mustache during the month of November.

While Movember might be doing wonders in fighting cancer, it’s dragging sales growth in Procter & Gamble’s (PG) Gillette unit. The shaving market in the developed world actually shrank in the fourth quarter, P&G chief financial officer Jon Moeller told the Financial Times. The company said Friday that sales in its grooming unit were unchanged in its fiscal second quarter, which ended Dec. 31,  excluding the impact of currency movements.

Gillette founder King Gillette built the business a century ago not only by developing the safety razor, but also by creating a “freebie” business model that’s still used today by other industries. Gillette realized that he could sell the razor handle at a low price, because consumers would need to keep buying replacement razors when the old ones became dull.

But that strategy doesn’t work if men forswear shaving to grow fashionably long whiskers.

Indeed, after long favoring the clean-shaven look, American culture seems to be rekindling its admiration for facial hair. Even babies can now sport fake mustaches thanks to products such as “The Gentleman” pacifier, which allows infants to sport a well-groomed lip-tickler. Mustache motifs can also be found on cupcake toppers, pillows, t-shirts and tableware. 

Shaving companies aren’t standing by idly. As men let hair sprout on their faces, Gillette is promoting the idea of “body shaving,” and providing the tools to do it. While some men may want whiskers on their faces, others apparently want baby-smooth skin everywhere else.

Gillette also wants to remind men that their hipster face-dos also need grooming -- its Fusion ProGlide Styler comes with a “library of styles” for helping to achieve that perfect Van Dyke or Gunslinger. 

In the meantime, Gillette also faces competition from new entrants on the facial-grooming scene, such as the Dollar Shave Club. Aside from selling blades for prices ranging from $1 to $9 per month, Dollar Shave Club has also won fans for its edgy approach, with one ad asking, “Do you think your razor needs a vibrating handle, a flashlight, a backscratcher and 10 blades? Your handsome... grandfather had one blade — and polio.” 

Aside from pushing mustache-trimmers, Gillette and rivals such as Schick may just need to be patient. As time has shown, men’s facial hair is often subject to the whims of fashion