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The Retail Philosophy of Harry Gordon Selfridge

Updated on September 27, 2016

Harry Gordon Selfridge - 1910


"Are You Being Served?"

It's been a very long time since a shopper has experienced service where they're waited on hand and foot. Actually, it's been such a long time that the experience is well over a hundred years old now, much thanks to an American retailer named Harry Gordon Selfridge.

His introduction to retailing in London forced this change at the time and practically destroyed these methods single-handedly. Because of the class system which was no doubt influenced by a monarchy, people were not allowed to browse in the stores. The retailer was the only person with access to the merchandise, which they would only show when they knew for sure the shopper was going to buy.

In order to know this, the shopper would go through a long series of questioning to know exactly what they wanted. Most high quality retailers still use this tradition with their sales but no doubt present the expectation that the shopper is most likely unwelcome. These types of retailers also had floor walkers who would make sure of this.

A good example of this tradition can be seen on the British hit 'Are you being served' TV show, where there are always staff members there to provide every level of service that there is, from 'the lift' (elevator) to the item.

Philosophy Of Shopping

Since it would be the retailer who would control this philosophy, it was Selfridge who established the foundation of what it means to be a merchant. In his book 'The Romance of Commerce', he talks about how natural trade is to being human. It is therefore the system of commerce which acts as the setting for merchants to turn it into a science.

Selfridge had already spent a little over twenty years as manager at Marshall Fields in Chicago during the late 1800's before he opening his own department store in London. This being the infamous 'Selfridges' on Oxford street.

It was therefore acceptable and encouraged that people browse and interact with the items in order to know and encourage to buy. We can see that his philosophy of shopping requires interaction and engaging the customer, to be immersed in the shopping experience and as a result he established the art of subliminal marketing.

The Impact On Social Classes

During the early twentieth century, Mr. Selfridge saw that there was discrimination of classes within London. Much of which still takes place today, however his philosophy allowed his store to thrive with the suffragette movement for women's rights which he was an active supporter of and allowing all people of all classes in society to enter his store. Everyone was invited.

Mr. Selfridge's store was incredibly large, much like the single department stores like Nordstrom's or Nieman Marcus we see today. An ambitious project that was open to everyone made a definite impact on the class society at the time. He also provided higher pay to female staffers which was unheard of at the time. Instead of living in small sections in the attic or area reserved for staff, much like what is seen in sweat shops; higher pay allowed them to afford their own lodging.

It was also the case that department stores catered to different class levels. There were shops for upper classes, middle and lowest working class. Those retail industries might have been impacted to where they had to either offer something more alluring or completely distance themselves from Selfridge overall.

Today's Shopping Experience

What can we take from this philosophy? Well for one, it was something that was at the core of his time at Marshall Fields. It was a mindset that was molded overtime and very American. With the current interest of the series Mr. Selfridge featuring Jeremy Piven, the rest of the world is becoming more familiar with the man himself, however the philosophy itself preceded the founder of it.

Throughout the entirety of his time at the department store, he made the merchant philosophy the fundamental principle of all retail that changed the way stores present themselves and the shopping experience we encounter today.


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      Jon Mark 4 years ago

      Absolutely! If only your comment could be posted other then my post; I couldn't have said it better.

    • informationshelte profile image

      informationshelte 4 years ago

      Hi jmark13,

      Harry Gordon Selfridge was a legendary figure in the world of retailing and his contributions to what we know as modern shopping can definitely win him a place in the hall of fame of the most innovative bussinessmen of all time.

      One of the best business decisions that he had ever made was to increase the importance of the role of women working in his store.

      This arrangement, along with serving the tastes of women shoppers, was a very successful business forecast, as the increasing spending power of female consumers has shown over the years.