A store should be like a song of which one never tires – Harry Gordon Selfridge

The title is a quote from a man whose vision, innovation, and creativity has delighted worldly and wealthy shoppers for generations. Harry Gordon Selfridge arrived in the UK from Chicago, noted its failings on the shopping front, and spotted an opportunity. And being the man of vision and means that he was, he set to building a new department store in what was then the unfashionable end of Oxford Street. Within three years, Selfridges had launched and the way we view shopping in the UK changed forever.

Selfridge & Co, established in 1909

Selfridge & Co – Established in 1909

“London’s Greatest Store”

“London’s Greatest Store” was set to draw a crowd at its launch on 15th March, 1909. Marketing was Harry Gordon’s real strength. For the first time, this was the launch of a lifestyle, not just a shop. He flirted with the media, built the hype in advance, and bathed the new brand in an aura of sumptuously innovative taste. He reached out in every way he could imagine, and even contracted the support of a whole host of well known illustrators to help promote the event across a wide range of publications.

Swiftly, Selfridges became a cultural phenomenon that embedded itself in the psyche of the well-to-do. He made it his quest to dispel the notion that consumerism was a peculiarly American approach, and set out to turn it into a form of leisure instead. To Selfridge, shopping should be fun and not a chore; social and engaging. Live music and a lack of visible price tags set the scene for those who visited. Shoppers arrived as guests, and felt the touch of the unique experience in their own, individual way. This wasn’t about materialism, it was about how your life could be lived… It was aspirational and inspirational.

But of course his aims were very much pitched at those ladies who had a bit of spare cash to splash around. Selfridges was the first store to bring beauty to the fore. From the start, they enabled women to try products, rather than have to brace themselves to ask for something because it was stashed behind a counter. Harry Gordon’s thinking was, why not indulge in style with friends? Why not make it easy to browse without interruption, and purchase with knowledge? These were the people who were happy to dip into their purses; and believe it or not, he was even the first to include toilets for women in his store.

The window to your soul

Selfridge astutely gauged that displays catcheth the eye. In the early years, he would start to ‘big up’ an unveiling, hiding displays behind swathes of material to whet the social appetite. So much so, that they became a tourist attraction in their own right, and a real draw to fashionistas and designers alike.

But why not? The shop window was the perfect opportunity to entice new customers in, and delight existing customers with interesting exhibits. In fact, Selfridges were the first shop windows to be lit at night; such an obvious marketing ploy to us these days.

But it wasn’t just about what could be found inside the shop itself. He also used his displays to make significant statements too. They weren’t always simply artful pieces of advertising; he was determined to turn some of his exhibits into educational and life expanding experiences. For example, after the first cross-channel flight hit the headlines, Selfridge astutely displayed the monoplane to draw attention to his new store. He was also a huge supporter of the Suffragettes, and created displays in support of their cause.

More than a store

One of the key things that Selfridge grasped, however, was that in making shopping an experience, you could attract people with enticements beyond just a shopping list. In the 20s and 30s the famous London store boasted terraced gardens, cafes, even a mini golf club and an all-girl gun club. After a long morning strolling around other outlets, what better way was there to draw weary customers to your shop than to then offer them refreshment and stunning views? Lunch out became a fashionable event.

As Selfridges proudly declare even now, their stores are social spaces, not just shops. “Thought-provoking, unconventional and fearlessly creative: at Selfridges we have always sought to do things a little differently.” They say… And they most certainly have achieved that over the years.