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“People will sit up and take

notice of you if you sit up

and take notice of what makes

them sit up and take notice."

Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858 - 1947)

· Insights

The modern department store was an invention of the Victorian era, first emerging in Paris and London. But it took an American retailer, Gordon Selfridge, to take it to new level with the Marshall Fields department store in Chicago at the end of the 19th century, which turned shopping into an adventure, to present it as a leisure activity, instead of a tedious chore.

When he brought his revolutionary ideas to Britain in 1909, his eponymous London store was a sensation. It soon became a social and cultural landmark, offering a public space where middle classwomen, in the socially conservative Edwardian era, could feel at ease, relax, and legitimately indulge themselves.

Emphasising the importance of creating a welcoming environment, he placed merchandise on open display so customers could examine it. He moved the highly profitable perfume counter front and centre on the ground floor - an arrangement that can still to be found in department stores all over the world.

He offered all kinds of free facilities where nothing was sold at all and were just intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms. There was even a chill out zone something he called a ‘silence room’ - with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing.

As the man who coined the phrase ‘The customer is always right’, Selfridge focussed on making shopping easy for customers, with special reception rooms for French, German, and American visitors and trained staff to be guides and advisers to customers, rather than mere salesmen

The spirit of Gordon Selfridge lives on and a hundred years later, Selfridges remains at the forefront of luxury retailing as an experience, although now the Selfridge brand is best known as a platform for presenting hundreds of other brands and thousands of products through concessions.

There’s another retailer, however, which has adopted an entirely different approach. This remarkable company only offers customers one brand, and has fewer than ten individual products. But it offers today’s retailers just as much inspiration as Gordon Selfridge. Any comments on who this may be? Next post exploring this will be March 14th, keep tuned

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