Is Selfridges anachronistic or retail’s ticket to recovery?
As legacy brick and mortar retailers continue to be battered by the likes of Amazon, we thought it might be instructive to take a look at the history of Selfridges, the UK department store started by American Harry Gordon Selfridge.
According to the BBC, prior to Selfridges’ opening in 1909, many London shops thought customers should be there to buy something. Recreating the department store experience popularized in America, Harry Selfridge encouraged “browsing” with merchandise in open display. Cosmetics and fragrances were in the front of the store, not locked away. Abandoning the tradition of arcades catering to the upper class, Selfridges welcomed the “whole British public.”
But Selfridges was (and is) always about the experience. The enormous Oxford Street flagship in its early days showcased the largest glass windows in the world, renowned for their displays of merchandise and artwork. Lighting was soft, price tags were mostly absent, live music played, women were catered to (gasp!) and customers were referred to as “guests”.
The retailer also drew attention with spectacles. The Londonist says that soon after the initial opening, the store attracted 150,000 people in four days after exhibiting the first plane to fly across the English Channel. Ever the entertainer, Harry Selfridge installed a seismograph in the building in the 1930’s, to pick up readings from earthquakes. The summer rooftop was used for all sorts of entertainment. Close relationships with the media ensured generous coverage of events, stunts, promotions, etc.
Nowadays, Selfridges brags about offering the largest shoe department in the world and the tradition of entertainment continues, with workshops on such things as the “art” of peeling potatoes properly.
According to The Guardian, the idea is to help folks de-stress, get away from their phones, and “reconnect.” Other workshops focus on activities like grinding spices, tying herbs and making tea with tea leaves. Everything takes place in a “farmhouse” in the basement, where attendees derive pleasure from simple tasks, and take time to appreciate everyday activities. Selfridges says their goal today is to “surprise, amaze, and amuse its customers by delivering extraordinary customer experiences.”
- Selfridges – Wikipedia
- Selfridges Heritage
- How department stores changed the way we shop – BBC News
- Learning how to peel a potato – The Guardian
- 11 Secrets of Selfridges – Londonist
- Secrets of Selfridges – PBS
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What retailers are the “Selfridges of today”? Is a goal to “surprise, amaze, and amuse” shoppers enough to revitalize in-store traffic in today’s department stores?