Last night’s U.S. premiere of Mr. Selfridge which aired on PBS, starring Jeremy Piven as Harry G. Selfridge, gave me a little lesson on the history of retail and how shopping became a recreational pastime and not just a necessity, especially among women. I also tuned in because it gave me an opportunity to swoon over Jeremy Piven who, let’s face it, I’d watch floss his teeth.
In this day and age, it’s hard to imagine going to a store knowing exactly what you want prior to your visit or not going simply to browse. Sure, many people may have an idea of what they want to purchase, like a dress for a wedding or a new pair of shoes, but prior to Selfridge & Co. opening in London on March 15th, 1909, people often shopped at small quiet shops in London and had to ask for what they wanted; browsing wasn’t an option and nothing was on display. It was a trip to London with his wife in 1906 where Mr. Selfridge found himself unimpressed with the way stores in London were selling merchandise and that they had not yet caught on to the American ways of doing retail business. Selfridges was designed from the start as a department store, unlike other stores that first had a background as a small shop. Mr. Selfridge started training his staff six months prior to the store’s opening on the “Selfridge Way” of selling.
You also have to remember that it wasn’t long before Selfridges opened that women first gained the freedom to walk alone without a necessary male escort. Harry Gordon Selfridge, originally from Wisconsin and who was a former junior partner of Marshall Field in Chicago, capitalized on this freedom amongst women by creating a shopping environment that would be a fun activity. Mr. Selfridge envisioned the store as a safe, paternalistic, and all-caring mansion, in which he temporarily replaced the husband, father, or brother as a protector. “Why Not Spend the Day at Selfridges?”, was a successful slogan targeted at the female consumer. Another revolutionary measure was adding bathroom facilities to the store. Prior to this, stores in London didn’t have any. Yet, in an attempt to get women to come in from the suburbs to shop, not only did Selfridges have luxurious hotel-like bathrooms, but also had fine restaurants and cafés so a woman could spend the whole day there. Another move by Mr. Selfridge, that has since changed the retail space forever, was adding a beauty department inside the ground floor area, something we now see in every department store around the world. Although, interesting side note, the reason the beauty department was added to the first floor was so that the perfume could cover up the smell of horse manure in the streets right outside the store.
The goal was to keep people into the store, by using flashy and creative ad campaigns, and then to keep them there as long as possible, which Mr. Selfridge successfully accomplished by creating such things as a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights and deep chairs. Selfridge also managed to get the number “1” as its phone number, so all someone had to do was dial that number to get connected to a Selfridges operator.
Another addition by Mr. Selfridge, and something we still see today, was the creation of a “Bargain Basement” which was targeted at thrifty housewives but had merchandise as carefully displayed as higher-end items. If you think stores like Target were the first to make cheap chic, think again.
With all the recreational options we have today, it’s hard to imagine spending the day at the department store. Yet, during a time when it was most likely your only option for recreation and where women were just coming into this time of modernity, where else would a woman want to be? It’s just incredible how this shopping mindset, first introduced by Harry Selfridge in the early 1900s, remains ingrained in many women of this era, regardless of whether or not they like spending time in a store. No wonder so many call it “retail therapy.”
Looking at the retail landscape as it is today, with much of these revolutionary shopping strategies and “retail theater” created by Mr. Selfridge still in place, despite the fact that many of them have been grossly diluted and are dusty and dated, I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Selfridge would do to change things up, yet again.
For more retail history peppered with drama, amazing sets, and costuming and…<swoon> Jeremy Piven, you can tune into Mr. Selfridge on PBS Masterpiece at 9pmET on Sunday nights. You can also check out Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge by Lindy Woodhead, the book that inspired the series, as well.
If you missed the U.S. premiere of Mr. Selfridge, here is the preview: