It was 1909 and Selfridge & Co. had just opened their doors to the public on Oxford Street in London. Harry Gordon Selfridge, a Chicago native, introduced an entirely new concept of shopping, an overall retail adventure Londoners had yet to experience. He threw back the curtains of the stage and initiated the theatre of retail, which has shaped the way we shop today. Having personally walked through these very front doors, I can appreciate all the more “the way it was.”
Mr. Selfridge knew that this experience must be different from what other retailers offered. He located the accessories department immediately upon entering the revolving door. The simple idea of bringing accessories out from behind the glass so customers could touch and feel their potential purchase while comparing colors and styles was beyond the “current day” way of shopping—a thought many of us cannot even comprehend.
It didn’t take long before Mr. Selfridge had his eyes set on another big change—moving perfume out of the pharmacy and locating it to the front of the store. Thought by many women to be “a lady’s secret,” Mr. Selfridge didn’t bat an eye at the idea, for he knew that the French were successful in this category by making this a prominent display. He gave perfume its own department, thus displacing Accessories. He then fearlessly introduced beauty products right next to perfume, cross-merchandising the facial crèmes, hair accessories and (gasp!) makeup into one location. His efforts were unheard of for his time.
And so started the retail trend of “change.”
While the popular PBS series Mr. Selfridge seems like pure entertainment to most, it’s a tale that shapes what we know as modern day retail. Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s, Harrods — the best of the best have taken on the Selfridge philosophy. A philosophy where you step inside the store and are overwhelmingly encompassed by shades of colors, samples to test and an artist ready to transform your face with the very touch of a brush. Setting the stage for the retailers mentioned above, Selfridges has championed the art of the customer journey, moving shoppers throughout the store in a way that encourages them to experience a full breadth of designers, departments, and shop-in-shops.
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Another lesson learned from Selfridge himself is the importance of powerful names and creating a buzz. He knew exactly how to excite the crowds and draw people to the store. From showcasing Louis Blériot’s (the first aviator to fly over water) aircraft, to appearances by renowned ballerina Anna Pavlova, he understood the influence of celebrity status and the relevancy of addressing current affairs. Today, celebrity relationships are just as prevalent. From Stella McCartney’s partnership with Adidas to Lady Gaga’s Workshop at Barneys, the importance of partnering influential personalities with like-minded brands is a highly employed strategy we see everyday.
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I must say that while we see many similarities throughout department stores today, Selfridges & Co.’s unique executions of design and brand expression illustrate just how forward-thinking this company has been from the very first day they were open to the public.