“Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to shop.” Bo Derek
As I begin to piece together my blog on spring 2014 fashion I can’t help but think of shopping and when I think of shopping I think of stores. Famous ones and not so famous ones. Big stores and small boutiques. But, when I mention “department store,” what do you think of? World famous Macy’s? Tried and true Dillard’s? High-end Bergdorf’s? The venerable JC Penney? What about London’s celebrated Harrod’s, Sweden’s H&M, or Japan’s Uniqlo? All good answers, but when it comes to setting the bar and making history in department stores, nothing stands as tall as Selfridges. Who??? What???
If you’re like me, you may have never heard of the illustrious Selfridges of London. In my Downton Abbey depression, I’ve discovered a similar PBS series called “Selfridges.” It chronicles the life of American retail visionary Harry Gordon Selfridge whose namesake store on London’s toney Oxford Street retains his legacy and takes up 13 acres of space on six floors. The store boasts nine restaurants and three stories of women’s fashion. It is a model store and a commercial success story that holds historical significance. Yet, it’s still doesn’t boast top-of-mind name recognition. Watching the show and learning this made me curious.
How, can a store that changed British society, liberated women, shattered class divisions, reinvented shopping and brought America’s “can do” approach to stodgy England not be supremely known? I’m as baffled as anyone.
Consider if you will:
Selfridges boasts Europe’s largest designer shoe department
Selfridges was London’s first ever department store
Selfridges was the first store that allowed shoppers to “browse”
Selfridges was the first store to welcome all classes of Britains inside
Selfridges was the first store to provide a women’s bathroom
Selfridges was the first store to have a biannual sale
Selfridges was the first store to put perfume and cosmetics at the main entrance
Harry Selfridge coined the phrase “only X number of shopping days until Christmas”
Harry Selfridge was the first to use advertising in London
So many “firsts,” right? Then why doesn’t it rank right up there with Macy’s and Harrod’s? As one historian said, America doesn’t care because the store is in London and Britain doesn’t care because he was an American. It still, is an amazing story.
Harry Gordon Selfridge is a true American maverick and a genuine rags-to-riches self-made man. Before he took his American dream across the Atlantic and shook up British society, he was an only child born in 1856 into poverty in rural Wisconsin and raised by a single mom. His young life was full of hardships and adversity and you could say his childhood shaped his destiny. He coined the phrase “Life is what you make it” and definitely lived it out. Harry was extremely close to his mom and was very protective of her. His respect for women would one day influence his business acumen greatly.
Poor but ambitious, Harry moved to Chicago in 1879 and went to work for Marshall Field. In the popular Windy City store he started out as a stock room boy but nurtured his retail talents and slowly worked his way up. He valued Field’s famous “the customer is always right” slogan and his bright ideas in advertising and design lead to him being named the store’s general manager.
He stayed on for nearly 20 years but always had the dream of opening his own store. Harry had previously travelled to London and loved it. London in the early 1900s was the center of the financial, manufacturing, and fashion worlds. But, as Paris was building its “cathedrals of shopping,” London still didn’t have any department stores. Harry spotted a nitch and vowed to provide just what the city was missing.
Interestingly enough, he chose Oxford Street on which to build his grand store. At the time, what is today one of the world’s busiest shopping streets was nothing more than undesirable backwater. Being the visionary that he was however, Harry noticed that directly across from his chosen piece of property was the new underground train station Bond Street. Bingo!
Public transportation was changing all of Britain. It allowed people from outside of London to come into the city and it also allowed women to travel more freely and independently. This, was ultimately important and amazing forecasting.
While the neo-classical building was being built, Harry started advertising what it would hold inside…something unheard of in London retail at the time. He promoted the coming store as somewhere that it will be a pleasure to shop in, where everyone was welcome, and where browsing was allowed. Again, ultimately important and amazing forecasting.
You see, in the early 1900s England was a “nation of shopkeepers” as Napoleon himself said. Retail therapy consisted only of small shops where browsing was frowned upon and where heavy pressure to purchase something was the norm. Even Harry Selfridge himself was once accosted for “just looking.” This undoubtedly reinforced his determination to build a store where browsing is okay, giving Londoners the “freedom to shop.” He knew what the customers wanted and he was going to give it to them in style.
March 1909 saw opening day for Selfridges and it’s estimated that one in four Londoners visited it and they loved what they saw! Inside, they were treated to a shopping environment unlike any they had ever seen. There were fresh flowers everywhere, musicians were playing live music and products were out of their glass cases, beautifully presented, and available to touch! Wow! This was astonishing! Inside were also a hair salon, restaurants, art galleries, and a concierge desk where you could book train or theatre tickets. In a very short time, Selfridges became not only the shopping center of choice, but the social center as well. Shopping was now an adventure!
It also became a past-time for women…the very women who previously weren’t allowed to go out without an escort. Department stores soon provided new and respectable destinations ladies from all walks of life and Harry Selfridge was the first in line to cater to them. In fact, his store was the first London store to provide a women’s bathroom. Unreal, right?
About this time the women’s suffragette movement was picking up steam, and being the supporter of women that he was, Harry Selfridge backed them by advertising in their newspapers and flying their flag above his store. He also stocked numerous items in the movement’s colors of green, white and purple.
Was this a calculated attempt to attract a customer base or was it a fitting homage to the mother he loved so much? Maybe a little of both, but genius nonetheless. Women flocked to his store and being Edwardian times, those women had numerous items of clothing for a single outfit and pre-made clothes had not been conceptualized…yet. Selfridges was more than happy to provide both the fabric and the seamstresses to make anything they desired. Again, genius.
At the same time he was selling his distinctly American ideals to England, he took on its greatest divide of all: the class system. Declaring famously that his store was “open to all,” Selfridges was the first in Britain where every class of shopper shopped together. As his competitors balked at the idea, Harry stuck to his growing up poor appreciation of everyone and it paid off…lavishly.
“The boss says ‘go,’ the leader says ‘let’s go.” Harry Gordon Selfridge
Selfridge’s egalitarian approach extended to his shop staff. At the time, shop workers were treated much like house staff members, worked long and hard hours in poor working conditions, had no rights, lived under strict rules, and lived in dorms on-site. At Selfridges, instead of living on-site workers received higher pay but much was expected of them. Harry demanded a new brand of customer service and instilled in them the Marshall Field creed, bringing Midwestern style personal service to proper and provincial London. Treat the customer right, he preached, and they will want to buy something. In short, he single-handedly transformed working in retail and started a new code of employment practice throughout Britain.
Almost inevitably though, opening day hype dwindled so Harry began staging elaborate publicity events, which at the time were considered beyond tasteless. He miraculously made them respectable, and in 1909 he brought in the first plane to fly over the English Channel and placed it right in the store’s center. This created a museum like frenzy and Selfridges never looked back.
Harry’s creativeness continued in the 1910s as Selfridges opened the first ever “Bargain Basement” of its kind and later held the first ever biannual sale, now a worldwide retail tradition. Thank you Harry Selfridge!
It’s truly amazing how many of Harry Selfridge’s original ideas have inspired modern retail. Think about it: today stores everywhere use his advertising techniques to encourage purchases and then there’s the little thing that in 1911 Harry Selfridge created. Today we know it as the ground floor beauty and cosmetics department. At the time, make-up was worn but wasn’t respectable. In stores it was often hidden away but by cleverly bringing perfume and make-up together right at the main entrance, Harry set the template for every department store worldwide.
Even WWI didn’t deter profits and by the end of it, Harry had doubled the size of his store. Now, he was ready for the explosion of senses and style known as the 1920s.
Called the “era of youth,” the ‘20s were when young people came into their own. They listened and danced to new music and wore innovative clothes. Harry Selfridge embraced it all. He starting stocking shorter and more light-weight dresses and introduced the concept of “ready to wear” clothing. It literally, flew off the racks. Today’s Selfridges still markets itself as young and fashionable and dedicates more retail space than anywhere in London to youth culture and trendy couture. Harry would be proud.
About this time Harry’s wife Rosalie died, which was also about the time that London’s notorious nightclub scene began to heat up. Harry loved the night life and is considered the first retailer to become a celebrity himself. Again, this did nothing but help his store, where he would parade his celebrate friends in front of the buying and gawking public.
Yet something else Harry Selfridge innovated was using storefront windows as marketing tools. Long before Bergdorf’s knew what a window display was, Selfridges was putting to use its giant 21 plate-glass windows lining Oxford Street in the best of promotional ways. Its windows became dream-like stories. Now, the store was not only selling product, it was selling a lifestyle.
Selfridges also hosted the first ever demonstration of television and had nine elevators – unheard of at the time in British stores – with female operators – also unheard of! For many customers, it was the first time they had ever seen or been in an elevator. Today you can find one of the elevators in The Museum of London.
All of this impressed many but Harry’s racy style also put him at odds with Britain’s more conservative ruling class, who considered him a “vulgar American.” But, nothing deterred Harry and he spent lavishly trying to prove himself a true gentleman. He floated the store on the stock market in 1926 and made a fortune. This small-town American was proud but desperate to break into the British upper class. He spared no expense and started using the store’s profits for personal use. Sadly for him, his efforts were for not. You see, money in America could give one status and class, but not in Britain.
The last years of Harry’s life were unfortunately not some of his finest. He started running with The Dolly Sisters, the most famous cabaret and film stars in the world. The group got into gambling and gaming debts mounted. Harry bankrolled huge losses and charged them to his store. He is said to have lost up to $200 million in today’s currency.
To make matters worse, effects of America’s Great Depression were being felt overseas and other stores began copying his techniques so his competitive advantage was lost. By 1939 the store was in debt and the next year its Board of Directors demoted and ultimately dismissed him. Harry Selfridge would still travel to the store every day and just stare at it from the street. He was by then a broken and broke man who had to count pennies to board a bus home. In 1943 he was arrested for being a vagrant and in 1947 he died penniless.
He also never met his son’s four children or wife. He had wanted his son to marry into British society, but instead married a woman who worked at his dad’s store; something and someone Harry never accepted. Harry Selfridge may have been modern and progressive in business, but when it came to family he was as snobbish as the “Earl of Oxford” he considered himself to be.
Selfridges has since changed ownership several times and during WWII its deep basements were used for secure communications between Churchill and Roosevelt. It was taken over in 1965 by the Sears Group but in 2003 the chain was acquired by Canada’s Galen Weston, putting it back in private hands. The billionaire retail family has returned it to its glory and is enjoying record profits. The flagship Oxford Street store is busier than ever and a chain of stores can be found throughout the UK.
It’s nice to know an American dream alive and well in the heart of London.
If this interests you, check out the PBS show “Mr. Selfridge” starring Golden Globe and Emmy winner Jeremy Piven. It airs on Masterpiece Theatre at 8 CST on Sundays.