Of course, you cannot believe everything you read in the papers, and what you see on television is just as likely to be based on myth as reality, which is why I probably shouldn’t recommend that people turn to the British TV series Mr. Selfridge for retailing tips…but I am going to anyway.
“Based” on the character of Harry Gordon Selfridge, a US-born British retail magnate who founded the London-based department store Selfridges, the TV version of this gung-ho entrepreneur is a case study in coming up with crazy ideas, implementing them and then reaping the benefit. Apparently, the retailer was known as “Mile-a-Minute Harry” for his enthusiasm and constant innovation.
Selfridge understood the value of publicity – no doubt garnered from his 25 years working at Marshall Field’s in Chicago. He created an elaborate opening advertising campaign and such was its success that it took 30 policemen to keep the crowds in order.
According to the series (and who knows, this all may be true) Selfridge managed to persuade everyone from dancer Anna Pavlova, author Arthur Conan Doyle and daredevil pilot Louis Blériot (complete with his plane in which he became the first man to cross the Channel) to his store in great publicity coups. He recognized the importance of drawing crowds to his store, and he did not hesitate to take risks in doing so. Blériot’s plane, for example, attracted 150,000 people to the department store over the course of just four days.
Nor did he sit on his laurels and keep selling the same products day-after-day, year-after-year. Among the many quotes attributed to him, Selfridge apparently said, “I am prepared to sell anything, from an airplane to a cigar,” which he did, with enthusiasm. As the Selfridges’ website says, “Harry Gordon Selfridge had truly established the theatre of retail and… if a topic or trend was new and exciting, Selfridges would showcase it first.”
For example, in 1910, Selfridge opened a beauty department inside his store’s ground floor entrance area, at a time when women’s beauty products were considered risqué and something still best sold under the counter. This innovation was so successful that to this day, department stores worldwide still situate their beauty counters near the ground floor entrance.
Rather than appealing to a particular (read: rich) demographic, Selfridge understood the need to have products that appealed to all pockets. In 1911, the Bargain Basement opened in the shop. Aimed at “thrifty housewives,” the items on display in this corner of the store were presented with just as much care and attention as the pricier pieces in the more exclusive departments – proving that no matter how much something costs, it has special value.
In the same vein, another Selfridge mantra was “Everyone is welcome.” You did not have to be a wealthy aristocrat to buy from Selfridges, there was something for everyone (rather like people going into Tiffany’s and purchasing a $75 Elsa Peretti sterling silver Open Heart key ring, just so they can feel part of the brand – after all, with Tiffany, it’s all about the blue bag.
Selfridge also knew how to be a leader – and not just a boss. Some of the sayings attributed to him include: “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,” “The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown” and “The boss says ‘Go;’ the leader says ‘Let’s go!‘”
And, lest we let a good story interfere with fact, Selfridge is also credited with the phrase “The customer is always right.”
Although Selfridge’s later years were less auspicious, (his fortune disappeared during the Great Recession, helped along by his gambling habit and penchant for show girls), both the man and the TV character have a lot to tell us – more than 100 years later – about retail.
After all, as he (allegedly) said, “There are no hard times for good ideas.” We should remember that.