Marketing, Business; Continent: Europe

Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead

  • Same period as “Downton Abbey,” more name-dropping
  • 336 pages (91% content before Acknowledgments, etc. begin)

PBS’s “Mr. Selfridge” (a “Masterpiece” production) loosely bases its story on the life of Harry Gordon Selfridge. Selfridge was the American retailer whose London department store turned traditional shopping on its ear with many modern marketing ideas. The PBS show about him uses this book as its reference, so I was intrigued to see how closely the show patterned itself after the man. As it happens, the show isn’t the best reason to read this highly engaging book.

Harry Selfridge, a Chicago man, didn’t invent department stores. In fact, he learned his most important skills in a famous American one that was already flourishing, Marshall Field. However, when he began visiting England, he recognized tremendous opportunity for the retailer who could make shopping a leisure activity rather than a chore for Londoners. In those days at the close of the nineteenth century, British people made their purchases in tiny shops with cluttered window displays, and they interacted with clerks who might go so far as to shoo one out of the premises if not ready to buy. To be sure, Harrod’s was already thriving, having started in 1834, but its founder took a more traditional marketing approach compared to Selfridge.

What made Selfridge a luminary in retail history was his sense of showmanship. He understood instinctively what is now a marketing truism: to get people to buy, one must first get them in the store. He used a range of techniques to do it.

Showmanship and Shopping

First, he reimagined the role of the shop window. Traditionally, shopkeepers crammed as many examples of their wares into a window as possible, expecting customers to make a purchase decision before ever entering the store. The cluttered results made it difficult for shoppers to spot what they wanted. Worse, it made them less able to spot the impulse items, too. Plus, all sorts of weather, and horse manure in the streets, gave standing outside, just browsing, limited appeal. Instead, Selfridge created narrative moments in his windows, one big concept per display. Get the theme quickly, then look inside for the related merchandise. Retailers still use this approach to their modern-day displays.

Second, Selfridge put items within arms’ reach of his customers, enticing them to touch and handle merchandise. This notion not only surprised many salespeople, but it alarmed them, too. The paradigm to that point had been to protect inventory from a thieving and careless public. No, Selfridge argued, shoplifting will happen less than you think, and picking up an item feeds the idea of owning it. Rather than protecting merchandise, sales staff should assist customers in finding what they like, selling it to them, and then putting whatever is left back in order. Essentially any store in the local shopping mall relies on this principle today, especially when the opportunity to handle or try on a product is what separate bricks-and-mortar stores from their online competition.

Third, Selfridge literally put on a show for the customers. Dance competitions or displays of famous aircraft went on in the main floor, making Selfridge’s store a destination for an afternoon outing even if you didn’t need to buy anything. In fact, he made a point of offering these displays free to the public. Even if people didn’t buy on the day they were visiting the famous airplane, they would be back because now the location had a place in their memories.

Social Elite and Not So Elite

Another aspect to Selfridge’s character also brought in the curious: as he grew wealthy and well-known, famous acquaintances came to shop. Selfridge conducted business with the moneyed and titled from the society pages, and he made a point of making them welcome. However, he also had a taste for showgirls and dancers, and these girlfriends or mistresses enjoyed exceptional privileges with his inventory. While expensive to keep, these famous ladies needed to show up for fittings or to meet him for tea in his restaurant, making it fun for locals to keep an eye out for a face familiar from the newspaper or theater marquees. When he took these ladies out, the gossip generated also kept his name at the top of public consciousness.

Meanwhile, in spite of the society-page presence, Selfridge welcomed customers we would call “budget shoppers” today. To that end, he created a “bargain basement” for lower-priced merchandise, a familiar tactic today. Yes, some of that inventory simply hadn’t sold at a higher price, but much of it was the less-expensive version of the premium items upstairs. Regardless of price point, Selfridge maintained that the visit for each customer should be identifiably a “Selfridges” experience. For example, bargain shoppers received the same familiar green packaging for their purchases as the upstairs customers. The main difference was the “cash and carry” policy rather than the delivery routinely done for shoppers paying for premium products.

Overall Impression

Ultimately, this book understandably covers more marketing history than the show it inspired. However, readers will find plenty of content about Selfridge’s private life and personal struggles. He gambled, spent lavishly and rubbed elbows with an astonishing variety of people, many of whom a modern reader will have heard of. These are the moments in his story that make you shake your head and wonder or give you a chuckle that someone could live that way. Unfortunately, some of his outlandish or unwise behavior led to the downfall of this marketing genius. However, what stays with me after finishing the book over a week ago is the astonishing number of modern business practices Selfridge introduced to retail. Watch the show for the mistresses (only one of them is real), but read the book for more to think about.

Image: Harry Gordon Selfridge, c. 1910; Source: Spartacus Educational.

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