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The Man Behind “Mr. Selfdidge”

I’ve been watching the ITV show, Mr. Selfridge, about Harry Selfridge, the American who transformed British retail, and it got me curious as to how much of the salacious tale was actually true.  He was one of the retail magnates that dominated the changing world in the late Victorian period, along with Macy and Marshall Field.  It was an exciting period of shopping innovation, with the rise of the department store and the idea that you could go to one shop for everything you needed.

A few years ago I read Marc Levinson’s The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America, which detailed the rise of the first real supermarket chain in America (and which still exists today; my mom shopped in one when I was little.  I still remember the carts they had; the pushing bit in the front was very thick, or maybe it just seemed that way to my small hands, and I couldn’t wrap my fingers around it, and found it frustrating when I was sitting in the seat in front).   A&P, which started as a tea importer, used strategies that we would recognize today in the mid 19th century to build customer loyalty, such as rewards programs in which shoppers could purchase discounted housewares after having shopped a certain amount.  The most famous of these sorts of programs eventually became the S&H Green Stamps, which I have a particular fondness for – when I was small and asked my mom where I came from, she told me she got me at the Green Stamp Store.  I was an only child, and very much wanted a brother or sister, so I saved green stamps, scouring parking lots and store floors for them, and eventually saving up about 5 books worth.  I asked my mom if that was enough for a brother or sister, and her response was something along the lines of, “no, but we need a new blender…”

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Anyway, back to Selfridge.  In the late 1800’s changes in architecture and building made it possible to create very large structures, and skyscrapers that were stable.  The invention of elevators and escalators also made it practical for people to shop and work in these large multi-story structures.  There was also a movement towards people being able to shop for themselves (as in the A&P stores) rather than have a shopkeeper grab everything for them, which was fine to do in a small shop where someone was buying one or two things at a time, but would have been difficult in larger shops where people were buying many things at once from different departments.

All of these different factors came together to create mega department stores like Macy’s in the US.

Harry Selfridge was an American who had worked at Marshall Field’s early on in his career, and was the first to start the promotion of “only x number of days until Christmas,” among other notable innovations.  He also was the first one to say that the “customer is always right.”  He worked in Chicago for several years, until he decided that he wanted to open his dream shop in London, where the new retail innovations hadn’t taken hold yet, something he noticed when he was on holiday there with his wife.  He bought land in what was then an unfashionable part of the western end of Oxford Street (across from the Bond Street underground station), and he opened his 45,000 sq ft store in 1909 with many doubting how successful it would be.  He seemed to have an innate understanding of women, and shopping, and the crowds of over 30,000 were so large that the police needed to come.

He was one of the first people to recognize that shopping could be fun instead of simply a chore, and he installed things like restaurants, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for different nationalities (French, German, American, and a “colonial” room, presumably for Australian visitors, for example), and even a “Silence Room,” with low lighting.  He understood the idea of keeping customers in the store for a longer period of time, which would lead to higher sales.

As much as he understood women when it came to retail and shopping, he couldn’t seem to ever control himself when it came to being with women on a personal level.  He had affair after affair, chasing after women and eventually squandering his fortune and bankrupting himself chasing after a particular woman, Jenny Dolly, an actress who performed with her identical twin sister.

He died a pauper in 1947, after being forced out of his store in 1941, and living in a three bedroom flat with his daughter.

I’ve found a number of books on Selfridge.  The one that the actual store quotes from in their history page is Lindy Woodhead’s Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge which I have purchased.