How Harry Selfridge Transformed How People Shop

‘Mr. Selfridge’ is coming back to PBS and I’ve been thinking about how he influenced not only the minds of his day, but how his philosophies, though considered radical in his time, are still valid today, over 100 years later.


Harry Selfridge was the pre-eminent and self-made magnate of retail.  A larger-than-life personality akin to PT Barnum, he had an uncanny knack for knowing what people want and how to give it to them. He was a complex man and showman, but his mastery of the buyer persona, customer service, sales, marketing – and especially leadership, speak to the heart of what business is all about.


His ‘back-story’ is one of rags to riches. Born in Wisconsin, his father who sold dry goods, fought in the Civil War, and became a major. He opted not to come home after the Civil War ended, leaving his family to fend for themselves. By the age of 10, Harry became a paper boy to help support his mother and worked a variety of jobs after leaving at 14.  He ultimately ended up at Marshall Fields in Chicago as a stock boy and over the course of the next 25 years worked his way up the ladder. He was good.  He transformed Marshall Fields into a modern department store. By the time he left he was a Junior Partner, had married into a prominent Chicago family and had amassed a small fortune.


Ever hear, “__________more shopping days before Christmas”?  Selfridge created it.


In 1906, he visited London with his wife and was totally unimpressed by the shopping experience provided by British retailers. He felt that the stores lacked virtually every element that made their goods attractive and appealing enough to buy. He knew he could do better, and was determined to recreate the Marshall Field’s concept for the London market. He would create the biggest and most opulent department store they had ever seen. It took £400,000, but he put it together, and the rest, pretty much is history.


Knowing the mind of the American buyer, he had a theory that people buy more when they shop for pleasure rather than out of necessity.  He was determined to create the consummate shopping experience. He would treat his customers like royalty. Women were his primary market, but there was a problem. In the early 1900’s, women were a protected class. The streets were considered too dangerous for them to be out on their own. To be successful, he had to liberate them from the chaperones that stood between them and his products. And he did just that, by creating a beautiful, elegant environment that appealed to all the senses: they could not only buy, but lunch, dine, read or even just take a nap, while swathed in the lap of luxury. They could come by themselves or be dropped off by husbands or chaperones and stay all day. (He also believed that the longer they stay, the more they’ll buy). He was right on both counts.  Selfridges became a ‘destination’, and an event all to itself.  And people bought.


On Sales and Customer Service, Selfridge said:


  • “Entertainment, customer service and value for money: The first will get them in, while      the second and third will keep them there.”
  • “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.”
  • “Give the lady what she wants.”
  • “The customer is always right.”


It doesn’t take a fortune to treat customers like royalty.  How do you make your customers feel special?


Next time we’ll talk about how his type of Leadership never goes out of style.



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