• Feb 24, 2015

Harry Gordon Selfridge

It all started with a man. A Mr. Harry Selfridge: the epitome of the American dream. He started from a poor rural neighborhood to become one of the wealthiest, most influential people in London. From stock boy to CEO, Mr. Selfridge understood retail in every aspect.

So how does this man, who was born in 1856, affect how you shop today?


Marshall Field: From Retail Store to Department Store

Mr. Selfridge, while working for Marshall Field and Company in Chicago, made shopping an experience instead of just a necessity. Most places in his time only offered dried goods (and maybe some personal items hidden in the back), but he knew that that people wanted more – both with the goods and the shopping experience.

Similar to Robert Mason Company, he took the store to the next level by leaving no detail untouched; from hanging lights to act as light rain to having vendors leasing outdoor spots. While he was there he also created some of the basic advertising ideas that we still see today.

For example, these retail-related phrases were supposedly started by him:

  • “Only _______ Shopping Days Until Christmas”

First promoted by Mr. Selfridge and then picked up by other stores.

  • “The customer is always right.”

While not everyone may agree with this statement, he and his boss Marshall Field are recognized as the perpetuators of this idea.

Although it’s not his words that made him a legend. It’s his ideas about shopping that has made his lasting impression throughout the generations of shoppers.


The London Store: Creating Oxford Street

Selfridges Department Store

Oxford Street is one of Europe’s busiest shopping areas - all thanks to Mr. Selfridge. As the first settler he opened his Selfridge & Co. store there in 1909 - when London was still a bit old-fashioned (women couldn't travel alone and shopping was just an errand).

The neoclassical building had restaurants, a library, reading and writing rooms, international office, first aid, silence room – and the first ever women’s bathroom. Selling everything from cigars to shoes, the shop floors were one of the first to bring the unnecessary items – like cosmetics and clothing - to the front of the store where they remain today.

He’s the guy that made you - the customer - stay for fun and leisure.

He’s also the guy that made you want to buy all the things. Besides telling his employees to assist customers and not by a pushy salesman, he also created bi-annual sales and discounts.

That’s right. If it wasn't for Mr. Selfridge, you’d be paying full price all the time.

By the 1920s the store looked like a modern department store, selling everything from lipsticks to pogo sticks. He continued his innovative marketing by showing the first airplane to cross over water, and new technology like the televisor (later becoming the television).


Vintage Retail: More Exciting Than Today

All these changes – the new displaying of goods, the marketing ideas, and making shopping a past time – all came from the early 1900s and is still working today. While we may not have airplanes displaying in our department stores, we certainly have the lasting ideas of Mr. Selfridge.

It just goes to show that high-quality, vintage ideas never go out of style.


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