The shutdown of UK departmental stores dominated the headlines for many months. In 2019, over 160,000 stores closed while other retailers struggled to succeed in the changing climate. However, other department stores like Selfridges have shown that with the right strategy and innovative mindset, physical retail can succeed in this digital world. Selfridges history succinctly indicates this, and we’ll explore that in this article. We’ll uncover this company’s history to learn the secrets of its success. On that note, let’s dive in.
Selfridges History – Where It All Began
Harry Gordon Selfridge was 51 years old when he decided to launch his flagship retail emporium in the center of London. At this time, he was already wealthy and could have simply retired and enjoyed leisure like playing golf. Although he tried this and spent time with his family, Harry Gordon Selfridge was restless despite the long holidays he went on. He felt he needed another challenge, so he searched for it.
Selfridge rose from being a stockman in a Chicago department store to the position of junior partner in 25 years. He not only had a good wage coming in, but he also had a large stock portfolio. Additionally, his wife was an excellent businesswoman who specialized in property development. Therefore, Harry had considerable knowledge and impressive skills in department store retail marketing. When the company refused to make him a full partner, he decided to resign and sold his stocks in the process. He then purchased a department store in Chicago. This didn’t last as he sold it within three months at a considerable profit.
While traveling in London as part of a European tour, he discovered how antiquated the British Shopping practices were. This was the challenge he was looking for, and he was excited to have found it. He realized he could bring modern American architectural and retail practices to the United Kingdom. By doing this, he could revolutionize the expectations of the European customer while facing a new challenge as he wanted. With this in mind, Selfridge got to work.
Selfridge History – Building a Business
Harry purchased several businesses on a plot of land along Oxford Street. These businesses were situated between Orchard Street and Duke Street. He started to demolish these businesses in 1908, which drew the attention of most Europeans. Once he cleared out their rubble, the skeleton of the ironwork that would become the Selfridge department store was erected. The kind of construction Selfridge wanted was new. Only one building in London had previously used this building method, and that was the Ritz Hotel two years before.
The building structure allowed them to place huge windows around the outside of the store where the products would be placed in the store. The goal was to attract Oxford Street shoppers into the store. Additionally, the iron beams removed the weight of the building and eliminated the need for internal supporting brick walls. This was a strategic move, doubling the unobstructed space within the store where Harry would display the products. This doubled the display area over other stores in London, and the stone and plaster exterior of the store gave an imposing neo-classical design. The store was a mix of Greek and Roman columns, making it a perfect fit with the Georgian neo-classical building erected all around London. Additionally, this building style gave potential shoppers the impression that the new building was over a hundred to two hundred years old.
Selfridge History – Opening the Store
The store officially opened on 15th March 1909 after an extravagant advertising campaign. The London press had continually run reports on the progress of the building throughout the previous year. As a result, excitement about the store’s opening had been increasing amongst Londoners. To prevent an uproar, Selfridge drafted thirty police offers to keep the crowd at bay. This was relatively unheard of in London for the opening of a store. Selfridge named his company Selfridge & Co, but the department store was simply known as Selfridge’s.
To keep up the excitement surrounding the opening of Selfridges, Harry employed the use of celebrities to keep the crowd coming back to Selfridges. For example, on 25th July 1909, Louis Bleriot’s fragile monoplane, which made him the first pilot to fly over the English Channel, was displayed in the store. For four days after the opening of the store, over 150,000 shoppers visited the store. Continuously, Harry utilized the theatre of retail to draw in the crowds.
Whenever new events occurred or someone broke a new record, Selfridges would put up a display. Most people used the building’s roof garden for special events. Selfridges history shows that Harry increased the store’s popularity by bringing in new and exciting product lines never seen or sold in London. He was recorded to have said he was prepared to sell anything ranging from an airplane to a cigar.
Selfridges History – Changing the Norms
Harry also changed the norm by placing ladies’ cosmetics and perfumes in front of the store. In many London stores then, Selfridges sold such products in areas covered by blinds and inside rooms. Other companies soon copied this product placement because of its success for Selfridges. The ladies loved it, leading to more sales for the department store. Selfridges also boasted a fleet of delivery vans. In the beginning, they were horse-drawn vehicles. However, they were soon powered by petrol and electric engines. In addition, the company’s logo was emblazed on every side of the van. Before long, it became a common sight around London.
One of the reasons Selfridges was such a success was that customers could now order bulky items like furniture, which they would deliver right to their homes. The added advantage was that neighbors would see you shopped at the Selfridge store.
Selfridges history also showed that the company introduced the Bargain Basement concept from 1911-1913. This allowed the company also attract customers from other classes beyond the elites of London. The store made it easy to purchase thrifty items, and housewives could mix them up with expensive items. The store also introduced a book department which soon grew to become the biggest book store in the world. Harry Selfridge was also a dog lover and noticed most of his customers owned dogs. Therefore, he introduced a department that sold everything pet owners needed.
World War 1 and Its Effect on Selfridge
When World War 1 came around, most of the men employed at Selfridge went to war. As a result, Harry Selfridge filled their positions with women. Some of these women took on strenuous jobs like delivery vans, loading and unloading the vans, and also stocking the boilers with coal. At this time, Harry came up with the phrase ‘business as usual.’ Most of the men who went off to war died, and then the Spanish Flu epidemic came around, claiming the lives of several women working at the store. Amongst the women that died is Rose Selfridge, Harry’s wife.
After World War 1 and the epidemic passed, the company began to expand, and business was going well. The company extended the London store, and Selfridges opened new shops outside London. 1920 was a good time for retail trade, and there was a department that catered to new fashion. Some of the latest fashion products included pogo sticks, red lipstick, and long necklaces. The store also continued promoting and hosting special events.
One such event was the demonstration of the first television by John Logie in 1925. At the time, the BBC transmitted the live music broadcast from the store’s roof. At this point in Selfridges history, it was the most prominent European Retail group. They had stores in Oxford, Leeds, and Sheffield.
World War II and the Years After
The depression of the 1930s had a significant effect on the consumer’s ability to spend as they did in the 1920s. Selfridges was able to weather the economic storm. However, Harry Selfridge was forced to resign due to his enormous debt. During World War Two, London Blitz, Selfridge bricked up the large windows for safety and security reasons. German bombs damaged the roof three times, but that didn’t stop the shop from trading.
In 1951, Lewis Investment Trust purchased the company, bringing on a new phase of prosperity. As family incomes increased, people could now purchase more electronic consumer goods. There was also an increase in motor car use in 1956, so Selfridges built a new modern multi-story car park at the rear of the store. It came with valet parking services and a heated car ramp for cold icy days. This allowed customers to walk straight from their car into the store without going into the street, which was a first in London.
The company got new owners again in 1965 when they sold it to Sears Holdings for £63 million. The company opened Miss Selfridges, which catered to young teenagers and their fashion demands. Selfridges now opened a coffee bar, and Selfridges played pop music from speakers in the bar; this made it an instant hit in London.
Selfridges has gone from strength to strength, and sales continued to increase. In the 2000s, the company maintained excellent profit margins. This was evident in their 2019 report; Selfridges’ full-year sales rose by 6% to £1.85 billion. The company also experienced strong sales in 2019 by investing in its physical and digital sales channels.
Although Selfridges history shows consistent growth, its digital strategy is responsible for its growth in the 2000s. The company invested in its mobile app and website to ensure local and intentional customers could get their products delivered easily. This strategy helped the company build loyalty amongst customers as they’re looking for an improved experience.
Selfridges also has four physical locations in the central city centers. This allowed them to focus their effort on improving the store experience for customers. Without the right strategies, Selfridges would have floundered. However, Selfridges history shows a commitment to a store that’s a destination in itself, and till the present, the store continues to work in this direction.