Shopping and the Man Who Changed it.

I recently watched a special on Selfridges , called the Secrets of Selfridges on PBS, a very large Department Store on the famous Oxford Street in London, and it struck me how much times have changed as well as the effect that Mr. Selfridge had on the retail industry.

It was eye opening, I never realized how much shopping in a department store has changed in the last 100 years. I love to shop just as much as the next girl. We take for granted the ability to go to a store to look, not being pressured into buying, being able to go to the restroom when ever we need to, the conveniences that seem so small to us where huge to the women in the early 1900’s.

As women one of our favorite things to do is shop, it is socially acceptable and even expected of us to shop.

Selfridges 1909

Harry Gordon Selfridge was born to a poor woman in rural Wisconsin , his Father left when he was very young to fight in the Civil War, His father survived but decided to not return to his family. Mr. Selfridge was very sympathetic and protective to women since he was a only child and his mother raised him by her self.

The glittering lights of Chicago called to Selfridge and he landed and job at Marshall Fields as a stock room boy, here Selfridge nurtured his talent for retail. He worked his way up in the next  20 years. He was innovative in every aspect of retail, he blazed a trail in the retail market. Soon Marshall Fields was the best department store in all of Chicago in no small part to Selfridge. Selfridge was the innovator who came up with the countdown to Christmas, this marketing ploy is still used today after over 100 years.

After 20 years Selfridge was feeling the strain of not being able to control the store from a management position. Work trips had taken him to London. The lack of department stores in London give Selfridge an idea, London at this time was the Center of the world of retail, fashion, finance, textile. Department stores where the only gap in London’s full repertoire. Selfridge had realized his dream of owning a department store in London.

Harry Gordon Selfridge circa 1910Mr Selfridge was a pioneer in Department stores, before he opened his store in London it was not acceptable for woman to shop on their own, Woman had to have  a chaperon to go outside of the home. Selfridges was one of the first department stores to make it acceptable for women to shop by themselves.

Mr Selfridge named his department store Selfridges, the department store had 9 restaurants, a concierge to get you tickets to the theatre or train, hair salons, and art galleries .

Selfridge chose the perfect spot for his department store right across from the the newly opened Underground Train Station, named Bond Street Station. Records show Mr. Selfridge even tried to change the name of the station to Selfridge Station, he also wanted to have a tunnel connect the station to the store. One of the large improvements in the early 1900’s was public transportation, which meant more people could come in to town from farther out, to work and shop. This improvement in transportation also meant the woman could get around much easier. When Mr. Selfridge decided to build the store there was not any other large stores in the area, he was taking a huge risk but he knew it would pay off.

Selfridge’s plans for his store where quite ambitious, his initial drawings looked much like the White House or St. Paul’s Cathedral, the authorities did not appreciate his plans because it was much to ornate also because it would have been taller then St. Paul’s, so for the only moment in his life, Selfridge scaled back his plans.

Selfridges Building

Selfridge also brought with him from America the idea of Advertising, before this London had never seen Advertisements especially the highly illustrated ones of Selfridges. The advertisements where in the newspaper and media. Before the store was even finished Selfridge had spent the equivalent of 2 million dollars on advertising. The message to London was clear shopping at Selfridges was going to be a new  experience.

The concept of modern day shopping is unlimited browsing, in London this was not always the case. You had to go in to the store knowing what you wanted, the ability to browse was not afforded to the people of London at this time, everything was kept behind the case not out in the open as we are use to in today’s market. The policy was developed to have Floor Walkers, the floor walkers would walk up and down the isles to pressure you into buying and also to deal with the time wasters. As you can see shopping was certainly not a pleasure in those days it was a hassle. After a incident in another department store in London Selfridge decided there would be no Floor Walkers in his store as well as no pressure to buy.

In march 1909 Selfridges opened its doors, one in 4 people came to see the opening of Selfridges quite the accomplishment in the early 1900’s.

When the store opened it was like nothing anyone of that time had seen, open vistas, cut flowers, musicians were playing and there was scent in the air. Still to this day the atmosphere is what sets Selfridges apart from its competitors. Finally the goods where out on display to touch and smell, he arranged the goods in displays,

In Edwardian England it was generally disapproved for a woman to go out by herself she  had to have a escort, but department stores became one of the acceptable places for a woman to go. Shopping had become a leisure experience instead of a hassle.

It was a huge milestone for woman to be able to even use the restroom while out, before this time if a Lady had to use the restroom she would have to go home. Selfridges was the first store in include a Ladies Room in the building.  Finally a Edwardian Lady could spend the whole day shopping.

At this time the clothing was not pre-made. At Selfridges a Lady would go choose the fabrics, the lace, everything down to the smallest detail of a woman’s outfit could be bought at Selfridges.

After the opening hype had died down Selfridge had to change his marketing game, at this time in London it was disapproved of to use Marketing ploys, Selfridges changed that. After Louis Blériot had flown over the English Channel Selfridge had the plane taken back to the his store to be put on display. The ploy worked, the effects were immediate, and it became an outing to go to Selfridges.

By 1910 the Suffragettes  had taken over London, Mr. Selfridge made it quite clear where He stood on the matter, he flew their flag, stocked clothing in their colors.  Mr Selfridge was very modern in His political views.

Selfridges was the first store where all Classes shopped together, anyone with money to spend was welcome in Selfridges. Selfridges opened the Bargain basement the first department of its kind, it catered to lower incomes. He also set up the first Bi-Annual sale which has become a world wide tradition.

Selfridges was also the first department store to not have housing for their employees, up until this point the employees had been treated as servants not people.

Mr. Selfridge never fraternized with his staff but unknown to Him, his son Harry  Jr. had fallen in love with a shop girl, Harry Jr. married the girl and they had four children together, but his Father never met his sons family. Mr. Selfridge wanted his son to marry into a influential English Family not to marry a poor shop girl.

Shopping and War should not mix but at the time of World War I in England it was your patriotic duty to Carry On. Selfridges had a contract with the French government for the solders undergarments.

Keep calm and carry on

Selfridges was on the cutting edge in the 1920’s  they marketed to the young people they started to carry pre-made dresses a first for the time. It hit me as I was watching the documentary that just ten years earlier woman’s dresses were up to their necks and down to their ankles then the roaring 20’s came and dresses were shortened to the knees with no sleeves, I can not imagine the shock!

When Selfridges beloved wife died in 1918 he become involved in the seedy nightlife of London. The 62 year old become a constant face in the nightclubs of the day. Selfridge became a star in his own right, he become friends with many of the biggest names in the entertainment industry.  Selfridge used the store to bankroll huge expenses to become a English Gentleman. Selfridges downfall began with the Dolly Sisters.  The Dolly Sisters

The Dolly Sisters had many influential men throwing themselves at the sisters.  Selfridge had put the store on the stock market and had made much money. Selfridge was very persistent in his courting of the sisters, he had no issue spending money on them and the sisters had no issue spending it. Through Selfridge the Dolly Sisters got into gambling, especially Jenny, behind the scenes Selfridge and Jenny had a huge gambling problem. Selfridge bankrolled huge losses to the Store. He would fund the gambling, if Jenny lost he lost, if she won she kept the money. It is thought that Jenny cost Selfridge close to 200 million dollars in today’s money. Selfridges was beginning to struggle in the 1930’s, by 1939 the store was losing cash but Selfridge continued to gamble and fund his addiction through the Store. Since Selfridges was a publicly limited company the Board of Selfridges called a  general meeting and told Selfridge to be there. The Board told Mr. Selfridge that he either had to pay his debts or he could no longer be the president of the company and was then demoted to Honorary Chairman. Eight months later the staff were embarrassed by his continued appearance in the store, though his secretary had no letters to send, Mr. Selfridge would still dictate to her. In 1940  the title of Chairman was also taken away, but he could not let go. He would travel to Oxford Street everyday just to look at His store, the one he built from the ground up, the store He was no longer aloud to go in to. People passing by on the street saw him in his smart morning suit that was no longer in style, shabby from wear just looking in to the store from the outside. He would count pennies waiting for the bus to take him to the store. In 1943 Mr. Selfridge was arrested outside of Selfridges for being a vagrant, looking incredibly threadbare. Henry Gordon Selfridge died in 1947 even with his great success Selfridge died penniless. His family could not even afford a gravestone.

Mr. Selfridges legacy is still strong even though the store has been through much hardship it is once again a beacon of light on Oxford Street. After changing ownership several times the store finally landed with the Canadian Weston Family who has once again brought the store to the Grand Place it was when Mr. Selfridge owned and managed it, by have re-instituted Mr. Selfridges formula for design and retail.

We can thank Mr. Selfridge for instituting many of the joys we have today as women in the freedom of shopping.

Some lessons we can learn from Mr. Selfridge is to choose your friends wisely, a man who had known such success dies penniless, perhaps if Mr. Selfridge had not become involved with the Dolly Sisters he would have not died penniless, who knows. It is essential that you know the character of those you surround yourself with.

Proverbs 13:20


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