Selfridges is used to crowds. On its grand opening day in March 1909 more than 100,000 people swarmed in. By the end of the week, the numbers had reached more than a million. Harry Gordon Selfridge, the store’s founder, who lived by the mantra “the customer is always right” and who is now the subject of a new ITV1 drama series, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Unusually for a retailing tycoon, Harry Selfridge believed passionately that the business of shopping wasn’t just about what his customers bought; it was about how much enjoyment they got in choosing it, how well they were served and how pampered they felt while in his store.
Harry had a heartfelt belief in the power of pleasurable memories – especially those triggered by beauty – whether expressed through the architecture of his gloriously impressive building, or the innovative and breathtaking window displays for which the store rapidly became so iconic. “Shopping,” he famously said, “should be all about pleasure.”
Such an enlightened approach to cosseting customers is rare, even today. But back in 1909, when the American entrepreneur opened his store on what was scathingly called by London’s more established retailers “the wrong end of Oxford Street”, his ideas were nothing short of revolutionary.
Having worked for more than 25 years at one of the most distinguished of America’s great department stores – Marshall Field in Chicago – Harry had learnt from the shop floor up how to “give the ladies what they want”. But at Marshall Field he was only a partner, and, craving his own name above the door, moved his family (wife, Rose, mother, Lois, and four children) to London in the early days of the 20th century. At the age of 50, he determined to open an emporium that would change the face of British retailing.
Selfridge’s (left) was the West End’s first entirely modern department store, and with six acres of floor space was the largest shop in Britain. It towered over its rivals, and one of Harry’s favourite press cuttings during his flamboyant opening week claimed: “Other businesses in London have become great but Selfridge’s was born great.” No newspaper could have failed to be impressed with the colour of Harry’s money – in opening week alone he spent an astonishing £36,000 (well over £2 million today) on advertising, splashing the story on 104 pages in 18 national papers.
With air-cooling in the summer and steam-heating in the winter, a bank of nine Otis lifts, electric lighting throughout the building – even the windows were ingeniously lit at night to encourage the seductive art of window shopping – Selfridge’s was pioneering in every way.
It had a telephone on each counter, a café open to the sky on the roof terrace (at one point home to an ice-skating rink) and an ice-cream soda counter selling such treats as American popcorn. There was a library – fully stocked with all the latest magazines and newspapers – a silence room, a branch post office and an information bureau that answered everything from the age of the King to tricky Times crossword puzzle clues.
Harry’s vision of empowering and pleasing women entailed giving them previously unprecedented freedoms, such as browsing the wide aisles before committing to shop; handling merchandise on open display (traditionally most other stores locked it away in cabinets); or simply having lunch or tea with friends in the sumptuous in-store restaurant serenaded by an orchestra playing popular music.
Harry was a pioneer who promoted Selfridge’s as “being open to the world” and allowed everyone who visited – he liked to call his customers “visitors” – to have the most basic relief of all: that of being able to visit the toilets!
He was under no illusion that he needed footfall. “It isn’t about getting them in, it’s about keeping them here,” he used to say. Whether it was a rifle range on the roof, in-store fashion shows, book signings, cookery demonstrations, or a famous pianist serenading the piano department, there was always something happening to entertain the customers.
But there was a flip side to the trailblazing retailer Mr Selfridge. A colleague once said of Harry: “He was a genius from 9am to 5pm and a fool after hours.” The consummate showman, he had an insatiable weakness for women. Throughout his enduring marriage he was serially unfaithful, his passion being for showgirls rather than his own shop girls. He had a penchant for large mansions he rented from cash-strapped aristocrats and, above all, he had a relentless addiction to gambling. None of this mattered when Selfridge and his store were making money. Indeed, his reputation added to the attraction of shopping there.
It couldn’t last. Harry’s wife died in the flu pandemic of 1918. The death of his mother in 1924 meant all restraint was finally lifted and, on meeting the Baccarat-addicted beauties, twin sister showgirls Jenny and Rosie Dolly in 1925, Harry pressed his own self-destruct button. With a twin on each arm he was a regular at the casinos in Le Touquet and Deauville where, along with other highrollers of the era, Harry and the girls gained celebrity status – as much for what they lost as for their winnings.
No one knows exactly how much money Selfridge squandered over the three decades he lived in London, but it’s thought more than £3 million (the equivalent of £65 million today) vanished in a haze of extravagance – frittered away on jewels and furs for his mistresses, a fully crewed yacht that slept 20, the maintenance of his daughters’ largely unemployed husbands and on his insatiable thirst for gambling.
Selfridge’s adoring staff may still have been “wild about Harry”, but his shareholders were not. Chief among them was the prudential Assurance Society, which, shocked by falling figures in the Great Depression, angered by the Chairman’s unpaid “private account” and alarmed that at the age of 83 he still didn’t want to retire, took drastic action.
In 1939, Harry Gordon Selfridge was ousted from what he had always thought of as “his” store. The most celebrated retailer of his era, who had lived like a lord, was reduced to living on a tiny pension in a small flat in Putney, where he died in 1947.
His legacy isn’t just his gloriously iconic building on Oxford Street – although the towering columns of today’s store are an awesome monument for any man; it is that he was light years ahead of his time, an accelerator of change who deserves to be remembered as the man who brought fun to the shop floor and sex appeal to shopping.