Normally at this time of year, many of us are thinking about the January sales. Not any more. Even Selfridges, a name long associated with the luxury department store retail experience is now reduced to online sales. How the mighty have fallen at the altar of Covid!
It was opened by the man who invented retail therapy. He revolutionised the way we shop. Harry Gordon Selfridge hit London in 1906 at the age of 50, accompanied by his wife, four children and an ego suited to aggressive sales, although the psychology of his sales was quite subtle.
Three years later, the department store that bears his name opened its doors, on the back of the biggest advertising campaign ever mounted in the British press.
In Selfridge’s in 1925, you could have watched the first public demonstration of John Logie Baird’s television. You could keep abreast of the news from the ticker-tape machines, take tennis lessons from Wimbledon winners, learn to roller-skate, or perfect your aim on a rooftop shooting range.
Days after Frenchman Louis Blériot became the first man to fly across the Channel, the aviator’s plane was on display in Selfridge’s. It also sold the first automatic wind-up watches, the first phonograms, the first radio sets.
This was a world away from the existing shopping experience for Londoners.
Selfridge’s was the first London department store built for purpose. It had central heating, restaurants, palatial restrooms, electric lighting, power-operated lifts. Everything was open to everyone, not just those who shopped there. Browsing was positively encouraged. Window displays were works of art. The merchandise, from £1,000 sable coats to crystal vases and cotton handkerchiefs, was on display; you could touch it.
Selfridge treated his staff differently too. He paid for lessons in deportment and grooming. But it was customers who noticed the biggest difference.
Harry Gordon Selfridge made shopping sexy, and has boosted profits for store owners ever since. He has a lot to answer for.
Selfridges as you can see, was the product of a vastly different era to the one we live in now. So were the journalists who wrote about him. Consider this 1941 Time magazine piece:
“Pert, imaginative, Wisconsin-born Harry Gordon Selfridge is, as he likes to say, the only man ever to buy a business from five Jews and sell it to seven Scotchmen at a profit. The business was Chicago’s Schlesinger & Mayer department store, sold to Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Harry Selfridge also made $1,000,000 from Marshall Field & Co., went to England with his profits. In 1909 he amazed Londoners with his magnificent effrontery by setting up a department store on Oxford Street, running it in the breeziest American tradition.”
In Britain, Selfridges is now a deeply entrenched part of the marketplace, but few, including me, could tell you anything about its founder. There are two biographies about him, one that is out of print and the other a more recent publication called “Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge,” by Lindy Woodhead.
Most of his big ideas — decluttering store windows and lighting them at night; putting merchandise out on display; launching the first-ever bargain basement; installing phone lines throughout the store — were first put into practice at Marshall Fields in Chicago, where he climbed the ranks from stock boy to junior partner.
Next stop was London. According to Woodhead: “He knew it was the biggest, richest and most powerful city on earth at that time.” (How times have changed, now airlines from the Far East give travellers a guide of where in London to avoid!)
After the death of first his wife and then his mother, (a close confidant who lived with his family in London), Selfridge saw his fortune dwindle. He gambled (and lost) frequently and spent lavishly on showgirls. But by the time the Depression hit, it was all over — and he was ultimately forced out of the business that he built, not dissimilar to how Apple treated Steve Jobs decades later. Unlike Jobs, he died in poverty in 1947.
A bit like the current retail sector. Unless you are Amazon that is
Shopping mall image by Michaelmko