Oxford Street Marvel
In the famous Oxford Street there’s one building that towers above the other ones, catching all the attention with its unusual neo-classical form. Its history is equally impressive. Founded in 1909, declared the best department store in the world twice, it has over 50,000 m2 of the retail surface located on six floors, including a department that specializes only in tailor-made jeans.
Selfridges changed British society along with the way people shop and it all happened because of the vision of Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American who started his career in 1879 as a warehouse attendant in Chicago’s Marshall Field’s, the largest department store of that time. He quickly climbed up the career ladder thanks to his innovations in advertising and promotion. For example, it was him who invented the promotional scheme “Only X more shopping days until Christmas”. Within eight years he became Marshall’s general manager. As there was no higher position than this, he began to think of opening his own department store.
London was dominating in almost every area of life. Harry would travel there for business and the city immediately amazed him. However, he noticed one drawback – it lacked department stores. In 1905 Oxford Street had poor reputation, so the decision to locate his business there was rather risky. One of the advantages was the newly-opened Bond Street tube station that was situated right across the street. Selfridge was aware how important the development of public transport was. He even built a tunnel that connected his store with the metro station.
The original architectural designs directly referred to the White House and St. Paul’s Cathedral. The department store was supposed to have a dome in the central part! As early as the construction works began, Harry started an intensive promotional campaign with boldly illustrated advertisements. The techniques which he brought from America were never seen in the United Kingdom. He claimed that a visit in Selfridges would be an exceptional experience for the British. What is now absolutely obvious – spending as much time as we want in a shop, looking around and searching for a desired thing did not exist at that time. “I’m just looking around” was unacceptable!
In the first week of March 1909 over one million people visited the store! Viewing terraces, fresh flowers, live music and the scent of perfumes in the air – it was a genuine revelation. Harry took the goods out of the shop windows and let the customers touch them. Every fourth Londoner showed up in Selfridges.
Opening of this Aladdin’s cave contributed to women’s liberation and shopping became an entertainment for ladies who could go out only with her partner or a chaperone. Selfridges was the first place with ladies’ rooms! Until then women had been forced to go back home when they needed to use the toilet. But after the initial euphoria it turned out that there’s plenty of goods and not enough customers. Then came another opportunity for Selfridge to draw the attention of the crowds. It was an event in which the whole Great Britain had a lively interest – Louis Bleriot performed the first flight over the English Channel. Harry got the plane and placed it on one of the floors. The result was immediate.
New Way of Selling
Selfridge supported suffragettes, as he perceived them as his potential customers. He also helped to abolish social classes – his department store was open for everyone. In order to attract the middle class, he introduced first discounts. The special sale department brought ¼ of the whole income in a few years. Also, big sales were organised twice a year.
In 1911 he took his biggest risk and created a beauty department with cosmetics and perfumes on the ground floor, right next to the main entrance. It appeared as something inappropriate, as until then such departments had been hidden on the highest floors. It was as early as 1920s when Selfridge focused on the young generation who were more self-conscious, independent and naughty. Ready dresses taken “right from the hanger” that didn’t have to be tailor-made were made easily available. And their knee-length was almost scandalous.
Selfridges had the largest shop windows out of all department stores. The decorations were really revolutionary. This was not all about the goods only, but also about the story and designs. They were fascinating and additionally, illuminated after dark.
Harry came into a fortune by entering the stock exchange. Unfortunately, the Great Depression, competitors who copied his ideas and huge gambling debts caused the business to decline. The management informed Selfridge that he has to pay his personal debts or leave. He was degraded to the position of honorary president, but soon he was deprived even of this title and became no longer welcome at the Oxford Street. Penniless, arrested for vagrancy, he died in 1947.