Get your shopping on
A trip to London can’t be complete without a stop at Selfridges department store. There are of course many things to see and do here, but a visit to this iconic store should be on your list too. As one of the city’s first department stores, the history of Selfridges department store is a fascinating story, starting with its quirky founder Harry Gordon Selfridge. Well, the shopping ain’t bad either, if you’re into that. (wink)
Selfridges department store on-screen
Right before I went to London, I started watching the show Mr. Selfridge on Netflix. Until then, it was a name I was familiar with, but I didn’t put too much thought into its importance. The show, with Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge, is a behind-the-scenes look at how the store came about. Along with a colourful cast of characters, the storyline follows the trials and tribulations of the opening of Selfridges in 1908. It ends in 1928, although the store’s history continues to this day.
As far as period dramas go, this one is also a feast for the eyes. You get to see the fashion of the day, where people lived and worked. Also, you get a glimpse of turn of the century London. I don’t have to tell you how much that appeals to me as London is one of my fave cities. As Selfridges’ was intended to appeal to the rich, you also get to see what luxury looked like in early 20th century.
History of Selfridges department store
Harry Gordon Selfridge was an American tycoon (don’t you just love that word?) and a man with a vision. An entrepreneurial sort from an early age, Harry worked his way up working at the most successful store in Chicago, Marshall Field and Company. This later became what we know today as Macy’s. He arrived in London and saw an opportunity to create shopping experiences that rivaled those back home and Paris.
His vision changed the way we shop to this day. I love the skepticism and doubt many of his contemporaries were filled with. He was a crazy American, scandalizing the upper crusts of British society. Most bet on him to fail before the store even opened.
So what was it about his vision that made it revolutionary?
Harry picked a location for his store in what was a very unfashionable area in west London. Located on Oxford street, it faced the Bond Street station. The real estate cost even in that day must have been a steal. Considering how successful the store became, this was a pretty good investment.
We are all familiar with the mall as a place to hang out, shop and have fun. But in that past, shopping was done for necessity not pleasure. Selfridges department store changed that. Selfridge brought in educational and scientific displays, extravagant events and indulgent activities on its rooftop to attract people inside.
The store became a safe place for women to gather and indulge. Merchandise was on display so customers could interact with items they wanted to buy. A novel idea a the time. If it wasn’t for large departments, we probably wouldn’t have malls today.
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"In my store, women can realise some of their dreams" – Founder Harry Gordon Selfridge. #InternationalWomensDay • • • • This #SelfridgesArchive image from circa 1920, depicts female workers occupying positions as delivery drivers of this Selfridges van, roles traditionally reserved for men at the time
Instead of shops with single purpose and items hidden away from reach, Selfridges made it all accessible. Different items were grouped together over five floors of the store. There was even a library, special reception rooms, elegant yet affordable restaurants and many other features. It was all designed to keep customers in the store for as long as possible.
One of the game changers was moving the perfume counter front and centre of the shopping floor. Perfume counters were highly profitable and this strategy proved so successful it’s a standard in today’s shopping stores.
This definitely isn’t a secret sauce in today’s world. But in the days of Harry Selfridge it was fairly primitive. Both the show and what I have read online, speak to Harry’s marketing savvy. He created a buzz about the store before it even opened. He penned columns in the paper under a pen name, he paid illustrators to create visuals for the papers and he made friends with key people. And then there were the display windows. Nobody could resist them.
When you think about it, the idea makes total sense. Make them curious enough to come and awe them once they get inside. And they came and stayed, making Selfridges department store a success and a legacy.
So having known all that, I had to go and see for myself.
On the outside, Selfridges department store is a massive building with columns, big windows and lots of flags on its roof. Let’s just say that this area is no longer considered undesirable. It’s actually hard to imagine what it looked like back in those days.
When we walked in I was trying to picture it as it looked like on the show. Numerous renovations and improvements (hello escalators) have made it look different, but it’s still impressive. I can see how Londoners of 1900’s would have felt walking into a place like this. With fancy displays, luxurious items and strategically staged atmosphere, this would have been jaw-droppingly awesome. Like an unreal world. No wonder they stayed and stayed.
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Since 1909 Selfridges has supported women's rights. Our founder Harry Gordon was an avid supporter of the suffragettes, creating in-store restaurants where women could dine unchaperoned. This was revolutionary at the time. Today we celebrate 100 years since women won the right to vote in the UK.
The shopping options are endless. Name a designer and I’m pretty sure it’s here. You can walk for hours between displays, mannequins and merchandise right at your hands. It’s not that much different from any other department store I’ve ever been to from that perspective. For me, it was the fun of visiting a place I’ve seen on TV. I imagined for a moment that I’ve stepped into the show. Only in a different time.
As much as I love shoes and clothes, my favourite part was the dining area. So many beautiful pastries, yummy food, chocolates, candy and everything else you can imagine. It really was a good idea to come here after eating breakfast, otherwise I would’ve been tempted to eat my way through this place. I almost made me wish I was a food blogger. Almost.
Bringing it together
I had a fun time visiting Selfridges. It was probably more so because I watched the show and knew about its history. You can really experience a place differently depending on how much you know about it. This was definitely one those places.
If I walked in without any previous knowledge, it would have been just a giant department store with some interesting decor pieces and tons of people. So it is what you make of it, but definitely plan to stop by.
Have you been to Selfridges department store? Are you aware of its history? Let me know.
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