V: Harry Selfridge, Thank You

Today, I wanted to do something a little different. As a 20 year old female who has a (small) disposable income, it’s obvious I like a little bit of retail therapy every now and then. One of the main people we can thank for that is Harry Selfridge (do you recognise the surname?). He founded the Selfridges department store in the early 20th century, and completely changed the activity of shopping for Victorian society. I’m going to explain some of the ways he revolutionised leisure for many women in England.

Harry Selfridge, pictured c.1910

Born in 1858 in Wisconsin, USA, Harry worked a series of jobs until he travelled to England in 1906. On his trip, he noticed that although London was one of the leaders in culture and commerce, he couldn’t see any stores that competed with the ones in Paris or the USA. Because of this, he invested £400,000 into the construction of what would be the UK’s first department store. Selfridges opened 3 years later in September 1909.

So, why was this significant to Victorian society? Well, Harry’s goal was to make shopping a leisure activity rather than a chore, which it had been seen as in the past. He achieved this by creating lavish and luxurious surroundings, which made people want to browse rather than quickly collect the necessities and leave. Decoration was a large part of this – Selfridges was one of the first stores to introduce window dressings to entice customers in – previously, vendors would stand outside the door and call people in. The roof of Selfridges was treated the same as the windows – throughout its history it has held terraced gardens, cafes and even a mini golf course!

An early Selfridges window display – the store is still known for their window decorations today

Another way he revolutionised shopping was the way his attitude towards customers. In his campaigns, he referred to customers as ‘guests’ and claimed he was selling a lifestyle rather than a product. In a time where shopping was very much a ‘women’s’ activity in a largely patriarchal society, Selfridges provided a safe (but public) area where women could socialise and spend their free time. The treatment of customers, and especially female ones, meant they were more likely to spend money, and ultimately led to the wide success it achieved.

The customer is always right

The infamous phrase is thought to have come from Selfridge

I think Selfridges had a major impact in English society and commerce. It was the first of its kind in the UK, and as attitudes were changing, so were leisure activities. I’d be interested to know your thoughts!

Bye for now,

Lucinda

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