Competition in the Bathroom

For many years, a common graffito in men’s rooms was: “Wash hands, place hands under blow dryer, dry hands on pants.”  The old-fashioned low-powered dryers didn’t have enough power to dry hands well in any reasonable amount of time.  No more: about 10 years ago the Dyson Airblade was marketed, and it was revolutionary:  10 or 15 seconds and one’s hands really were dry.

I assume that they were expensive, which is why I only saw them in a few places, even in the U.K., where they originated. Today they are much more widespread.  They aren’t cheap (I see a discounted price of £615), but I bet they have come down in price.  Why?  The answer is competition: other companies are now making equally effective products, both in the U.S. and the U.K. An innovating entrepreneur may enjoy a monopoly for a while, but competitors with similar products will enter the market, forcing prices down (and increasing consumer surplus for now dry-handed users like me!).

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  1. Joe says:

    I’m not sure the article was sufficiently detailed enough to explain the issue, particularly to those who haven’t experienced the gamut.

    Dyson’s AirBlade is significantly different than most hand dryers; it doesn’t use a very loud burst of air, nor is it heated. Rather, it uses the air to effectively ‘wipe’ your hands dry by pulling the water down. Much more sanitary (in particular, it keeps the germs enclosed in the air dryer) and not very loud (at least, it doesn’t scare my 2 year old, though he won’t use it). There are some imitators, most notably (and effectively) a Mitsubishi that I wonder whether it might have predated the AirBlade (otherwise I’m sure Dyson would charge a fortune for the patent rights).

    The XLerator is a completely different concept; super-loud super-high pressure air. That is far superior to the old fashioned World Dryer or whatnot; it actually does get your hands dry reasonably quickly, although it scares off small children and is probably energy-inefficient. I don’t know the timing to market, but I’d be willing to bet that the Dyson entry forced the hands of some of the folks on the market – the World Dryer and similar were all terrible and all very energy-inefficient.

    To TommyP, it certainly counts as innovation. Most of innovation is taking products that don’t work and making them work, or products that work and making them work better. In some cases it’s small incremental changes and some cases it’s huge changes, but I think it’s hard to argue that in this case Dyson (and XLerator and a few others) made significant improvements.

    Daniel/Jamie, while you might think that, I certainly don’t think that air dryers are less cost effective – Dyson claims theirs cost 97% less than paper towels, for example (Assuming 0.01 per paper towel and 2 towels per customer, which passes the smell test to me; 97% is probably based on a very high usage amount, as the dryer has some standby cost that towels do not). Even if you ran a dryer on 15 amps (far more than a Dyson, and probably others, use), for 30 seconds per customer, that’s 0.75kW*0.5m/60m/h per customer, or .006 kWh/customer; at .10 per kWh , that’s .0006 per customer actual use vs .02 per customer for towels – a significant cost savings indeed, which means you’d make back that $600 after 35000 customers or so. Certainly sounds reasonable for a high-traffic area (airports, movie theaters, etc.) at least.

    Whether customers would prefer it or not over paper towels is probably a two part question. Some might prefer it right now (including me, I prefer both Dyson and XLerator over hand towels), and some might learn to prefer it (such as when they learn to use Dyson properly, or even the XLerator, which does much better when you shake off first and don’t keep your hands too close together initially). My only objection to them is that they don’t open the door for me, meaning I still touch the germy handle if it’s not a push-door.

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    • Joe says:

      Follow up on my calculations – Dyson uses 1400W, XLerator uses 1500W, and a ‘traditional’ hand dryer uses around 2200W. So my calculation is about right for XLerator or Dyson, and would be a bit higher (but still far lower than paper) for a traditional hand dryer. (XLerator also assumes 15 seconds per dry, not 30, which is about the same as Dyson, but I’m going to assume for both you have more like 30 including time where nobody can use it, and spin up/spin down time, and carry the ‘standby’ cost in that bucket as well).

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    • Phil Persinger says:

      Joe–

      While I see no reason to doubt your figures, my totally personal observation is that– unless you’re talking interstate highway rest areas or franchise restaurants– you don’t really see many of these machines because the first-time cost for any of them alarms the typical “small-volume” rest room owner, who will often strike the item when confronted with an initial construction budget.

      Where we do see hand dryers, I can imagine that their availability has little to do with customer preference. Instead we might consider marketing tactics which may emphasize the “coolness” of these machines (as opposed to hard-to-quantify, actual economics), tax policies which place no penalty on the purchase of “premium” equipment and corporate algorithms which calculate that the purchase of this equipment will be offset by reduced maintenance/personnel costs over the period until the next re-model.

      Personally, I prefer towels since I like to wash my face and glasses occasionally– and neither fits profitably into a Dyson or XLerator.

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    • Bill McGonigle says:

      Also, paper towel dispensers have fairly low maintenance costs.
      Does the Dyson go 35,000 cycles without needing any replacement parts? I don’t know, but it’s very likely doesn’t go forever.

      Also to figure in: the installation costs are considerably lower for paper towels (figure $350 for an electrician to install the outlet in the right space in the wall for a dryer). There are also labor costs to replace the towels, though perhaps the minimum-wage youth you set on the job is already a sunk cost.

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  2. SAO says:

    I tried a Dyson hand dryer. I still dried my hands on my pants when I was done.

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    • Joe says:

      If you’re still drying your hands on your pants, then you’re doing it wrong; cost-effective or not, a properly used Dyson Air Blade dries your hands as advertised. It’s a very different experience than a normal air dryer, though (given it’s scraping your hands clean of water rather than heating the water or overpowering them like an XLerator) so it definitely has a learning curve.

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  3. Bob says:

    I wonder how much money is saved when you don’t need to buy as many paper towels as you used to because the blow dryers are actually drying.

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  4. duggo says:

    I prefer a paper towel as I can use it to open the door.

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  5. Doug says:

    No thanks, please give me paper towels. Otherwise I’ll come out and just ask for napkins.

    These never work well enough.

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  6. RZ says:

    My biggest gripe with these is that in most women’s restrooms, there are too few hand dryers. It’s common to see 10 or so stalls, 6 or so sinks, and then just two hand dryers. So I’m guessing that either they’re still expensive (even in the prices dropped), or companies with large restrooms are too cheap to buy more, or not everyone is expected to wash/dry their hands.

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  7. Jake Peters says:

    I seem to recall that, in Japan, Mitsubishi had these “blade style” hand dryers at least 12-13 years ago. Back then, they were new to me, but they were not new to Japan, and therefore might be much older. And, they work at least as well as the Dyson

    So, don’t be too sure that Dyson really pioneered this capability. It may have done so, but only for the western world.

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  8. DrJ says:

    I first saw a Dyson had dryer in a WC in Bath, England. It was awesome enough I encouraged my studies to go potty just so they could try it out. They agree it was great.

    When I can get one for $200 it’ll go into my home….

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