Exclusive: Site becomes thorn in Gillette's side

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Freerazor.com may sound like a parody from the dot-com heyday, but it's no laughing matter to Gillette Co.

Gillette has put a disclaimer regarding the renegade Internet razor marketer on its Web site and urges consumers to complain to state authorities, yet hasn't been able to shut the site down.

Freerazor mass e-mails offers for free Gillette Mach 3 Turbo and Venus women's razors via opt-in lists-not spam, its backers insist. It also collects bargain-seekers' credit-card numbers, which the site says prevents duplicate entries. But it also automatically enrolls consumers to receive eight replacement blades every two months in a way that one state attorney general's office finds misleading. Consumers who get five friends to sign up can get free blades for life.

Now, about 10 weeks after it began pumping offers for free Gillette razors into millions of e-mail boxes, Freerazor wants to expand the concept to Procter & Gamble Co.'s Swiffer and Clorox Co.'s ReadyMop brands. A Freerazor official last month registered the Internet domain names freemop.com, freeswiffer.com, freereadymop.com and freedetergent.com.

Freerazor also tried to work with Gillette before launching the site last November, said Daniel Khesin, Freerazor's VP-operations. But he said Gillette was just "too conservative" to get involved in the Internet venture. What Freerazor does is perfectly legal and akin to what other direct marketers or retailers do, Mr. Khesin said. "When you send out millions of e-mails, you're inevitably going to get some complaints."

After complaints reported by a Lexington, Ky., TV station, the Kentucky attorney general's office looked into Freerazor but took no action, said Todd Leatherman, director of the office's consumer protection division. He called Freerazor's offer "potentially misleading" but said Kentucky isn't investigating and has gotten no complaints directly.

Gillette itself sends free razors to people in the mail unsolicited, Mr. Khesin added, in hopes they'll buy replacement blades. He said Freerazor.com spells out all terms and lets consumers opt out any time.

"We want to ride the wave of new-product launches," Mr. Khesin said. "Gillette spent $300 million launching [Mach 3] and we sort of benefited from that huge advertising campaign. We hope it's the same thing with the Clorox and Swiffer mops."

A P&G spokeswoman, however, said company officials aren't aware of contacts by Freerazor. "Since we haven't been contacted," she said, "it would be hard to speculate on what our feeling is about their marketing plan." A Clorox spokeswoman couldn't find company officials familiar with Freerazor or its plans.

opt-in e-mailers

While Freerazor doesn't claim to be affiliated with Gillette, it uses photos of Gillette products and copy similar to Gillette ads. A Gillette spokeswoman said the company has received numerous complaints about the site, prompting the Web notice. Freerazor uses such opt-in e-mailers as FiestaTwist.com, which also sends offers from many package-goods and other consumer-products marketers, such as Altria Group's Gevalia mail-order coffee.

Mr. Khesin said that while Gillette threatened legal action, none has been forthcoming.

"It's like those record-club offers where they keep sending it to you until you tell them to stop," the Gillette spokeswoman said. The Freerazor site's implication that Mach 3 and Venus are so popular that there are shortages at retail "is so not true," she added. "We do a very good job of keeping our retailers supplied." But she said Gillette is uncertain it can do anything legally about the site.

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