A trip to London can’t be complete without a stop at Selfridges department store. In addition to many historical monuments, cultural attractions and architecture that London has to offer, a visit to the iconic store should be on your list too. The history of Selfridges department store is a fascinating story, starting with its quirky founder Harry Gordon Selfridge. Well, the shopping isn’t bad either, if you’re into that.
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Selfridges department store on-screen
Right before I went to London, I started watching the show Mr. Selfridge on Netflix. Until then, Selfridges department store was a familiar name, but I didn’t put too much thought into its importance. The show, starring Jeremy Piven as Harry Selfridge, is a behind-the-scenes look at how the store came about. A story of an underdog in a foreign land, so to speak.
Along with a colourful cast of characters, the storyline follows the trials and tribulations of Harry Selfridge, his family and employees. The show opens up right before 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. In addition, 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. You also get a chance to see what luxury looked like in early 20th century.
Harry Selfridge, founder of Selfridges
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.
The early life of Harry Selfridge was typical of the day. His father abandoned his wife and his three sons after the American Civil War, leaving Harry’s mother to take care of the children. Two of his brothers died young, which left Harry and his mother to take care of each other. Harry worked from a young age and amassed a substantial fortune over time.
When he arrived in London in 1906, he noticed lack of great shopping galleries and stores. He saw an opportunity to create a shopping experience that rivaled those back home and in Paris. Harry Selfridge had a dream backed by innovation, tenacity and passion. He took London by storm, scandalizing the upper crusts of British society. Most bet on him to fail before the store even opened.
Harry was a man of invention. He wanted shopping to be an entertaining and pleasurable experience for everyone with outstanding customer service. His passion and vision created a unique shopping experience and changed the way retail evolved to this day.
History of Selfridges London
Harry Selfridge invested £400,000 of his own money in his new store. He decided on a location across the Bond tube station in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The real estate cost even in that day must have been a steal. Considering how successful the store became, this was a sound investment.
It was a strategic decision that was revolutionary in those days. Make them curious enough to come and awe them once they get inside.
When the store opened in 1909, it caused a stir. Harry Selfridge was brilliant marketer and he used his skills to the fullest. Adverts and stories in local papers built up the anticipation before the store even opened its doors. 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.
Harry Selfridge was an innovator when it came to keeping people entertained. He brought in educational and scientific displays, hosted extravagant events and indulgent activities on the building’s rooftop to attract people inside.
Selfridges department store wowed people for decades and received the title of the Best Department Store in the World four times. The Great Depression, however, took a toll on the store and so did Harry’s debts. Forced out by the board in 1941, Harry died in 1947 of bronchial pneumonia at age 89.
Selfridges changed hands numerous times over the years. Today. Canadian W. Galen Weston and his family own and operate Harry’s legacy.
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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
What made Selfridges department store revolutionary
With the opening of his store, Harry Selfridge created a cultural and social phenomenon. He was a genius at catering to the needs of their customers before they even knew what they wanted. Walking into the Selfridges department store was unlike any other experience. All customers were welcomed and were invited to browse around without the pressure to buy.
Until then, shops were places for necessities and you were expected to buy, without touching the merchandise. I can see why you’d want to spend as little time in a shop like that. Opening of Selfridges changed that.
Instead of shops with single purpose and items hidden away from reach, Selfridges made it all accessible. Items, grouped together over five floors of the store, created a pleasant adventure for the senses.
There was even a library, special reception rooms, elegant yet affordable restaurants and many other features. All designed to keep customers in the store for as long as possible. Strategically soft lighting added to the ambiance while shoppers perused different items they didn’t know they needed.
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 we still see it in today’s department stores layout. In the show Mr. Selfridge, Harry makes this decision to mask the smell of horse manure coming in from the streets every time the door opened. Whatever the reason, it was a great decision.
The store became a safe place for women to gather and indulge. At the Selfridges department store, women could socialize with ease. Harry made sure of that. It became a place where women could shop and enjoy the company of their friends without the constrictions of society.
Having been raised by a single mother and surrounded by women all his life (wife, daughters and mistresses) made him more attune to their needs. Selfridges employed many women and Harry himself was a big supporter of the Suffragettes. His store and its window display championing their cause, was the only shop on Oxford Street not to have its windows smashed by the Suffragettes as they demonstrated for their cause.
Today, window displays are a common practice. From small shops to large department stores, windows have a purpose of bringing people inside. Harry Selfridge made them into an art form. From the dramatic unveiling of the windows on its opening day, they played a role in the customer experience in his store.
You can imagine how enthralling they must have looked to the people of London. It was a novelty not seen before and it worked just as Harry intended. The window displays were the first step of the theatrical-like experience of shopping at the Selfridges department store. Even if you couldn’t afford to buy anything, you could still be part of the experience from outside. It was genius.
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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.
Harry Selfridge created a legacy. He was a savvy business man, marketer and showman. A creative storyteller that made the shoppers part of the show. He created seasonal sales, emphasized customer service and supported causes he believed in. The Selfridge department store continues that tradition by championing the Project Ocean initiative to protect oceans from pollution and over-fishing.
Many of the things we take for granted when we shop today come from Harry’s philosophy of what the shopping experience should be. From advertisements, sales and markdowns, to layouts of the stores and the way merchandise is displayed, it goes back to a man with a dream.
Selfridges department store today
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 far from undesirable. It’s actually hard to imagine what it looked like back in those days.
Walking 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 1900s would have felt walking into a place like this. With fancy displays, luxurious items and strategically staged atmosphere, this would have been jaw dropping awesome. Like a magical fantasy world. No wonder they stayed and stayed.
The shopping options are endless. Name a designer and I’m 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 were the many dining areas. 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 were a food blogger. Almost.
Bringing it together
I had a fun time visiting the Selfridges department store. 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. Therefore, it is what you make of it, but definitely plan to stop by.
Have you been to the Selfridges department store? Are you aware of its history? Let me know.
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