Meet Harry Selfridge: The Man Every Retailer (And Consumer!) Should Know

(Check out this post on its original site here

“People will sit up and take notice of you, if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.”-Harry Selfridge

Harry Gordon Selfridge did just that.

From paper boy to retail tycoon, Harry Selfridge challenged people to think differently.

Today, we’d like to reach back into history and pick out some gems from this Giant of Retailing.

Harry came from a modest background. He was born in the town of Ripon, Wisconsin.

Entrepreneurial at a young age, at ten years old, Harry delivered newspapers to help support his mother. At the age of 12, he started working at Leonard Field’s dry goods store. The same year he created a boy’s magazine with school friend Peter Loomis. He made money by selling ad space in the magazine.

But Harry had big dreams.

Much bigger dreams.

He left school at age 14 and started working at a bank. He applied to the United States Naval Academy but was rejected due to his height.

He then became a bookkeeper at the local furniture factory. The company closed down four months later, and Harry moved to Grand Rapids to sell insurance.

Not deterred by his slow beginnings, Harry eventually landed a job as a stock boy at Marshall Field & Co. at the age of 18. During his 25 years with the company he rose through the ranks to become a junior partner. As an employee of Marshall Field, he played an integral role in innovative changes at the store including the introduction of flower-arranging classes, home-décor advice, a package and coat customer drop off as well as the idea of the wedding gift registry.

The big break in Harry’s life came in 1904 when he opened his own store in Chicago. He called it Harry G. Selfridge and Co. but two months later he sold it.

Despite this initial setback, Selfridge never gave up on the idea of running his own store.

Five years later, while on vacation, Harry saw a gap in the London retail market and decided to open his own department store- Selfridge’s.

This store set new standards and raised the bar for retail business.

Over 2 million pounds was spent on advertising the week it opened; the store was featured on 104 pages in 18 different national papers.

The ads—just like Selfridge himself—talked about retailing with an entirely new vocabulary, promoting the “pleasures of shopping” and ‘shopping center’ and even cajoling customers to ‘sight see’ at his store–a novel idea in the day.

Harry was dubbed “the showman of shopping.” He introduced British consumers to window displays, cooking demonstrations and in-store restaurants.

For the first time, shopping wasn’t seen as a necessity but an experience. He believed people should do it for pleasure.

He was even credited with the Christmas ‘countdown’—warning shoppers there were only so many shopping days left until Christmas.

And one of the most important things he did was recognize that his REAL customer were not the husbands—but the ladies of the house. He celebrated and catered for his female consumers, understanding their real power.

His store made women feel liberated. Goods were presented beautifully. Women delighted in the store’s comforts with the scent of perfume lingering in the air and soft music playing. They could have lunch with friends or shop unsupervised. And his store was the first in Britain to actually have women’s toilets!

Here are some other ways Harry Selfridge revolutionized the retail industry:

  1. He made customer comfort a high priority. Merchandise was placed on low counters for customers to touch and feel. Staff members were taught to assist customers and sell the merchandise. There was air conditioning in the summer and steam-heating in the winter. Nine elevators carried customers to five different floors.
  2. He created a luxurious but relaxing atmosphere in his store. There were reception rooms, reading and writing rooms, a library, hairdresser, and a place for women to get their nails done. Multiple restaurants with affordable menus.
  3. He enjoyed the ‘theatre’ of shopping.  For example he would light up display windows at night to encourage window shopping.
  4. He understood there was a place for the wealthy and the bargain hunter. He even created a bargain basement for frugal housewives.

Sadly and despite his mark on retailing, the Harry Selfridge legend ended badly.

The Great Depression caused huge issues for Harry and he was let go from his own store at the age of 81.

His penchant for pretty women and gambling had left him few resources and he ended his days living in a small rented apartment with his daughter.

He died penniless.

However, despite this sad ending, Selfridge has left us all—customer and retail alike- a lasting retail legacy.

His fervent comment to putting customer’s needs first not only built a wildly successful business but has paved the way for all of us to have more enjoyable shopping experiences.

Not surprisingly, it was Harry Selfridge who authored the time-honored retail adage (still used today): “The customer is always right.”

He was a giant of a man who saw that there is always great opportunity in looking beyond the ‘same old, same old’, to think differently and to place the highest priority to the dreams of our clients.

Thanks for showing us how to do it right, Harry.

Sharing is Caring!