Legend has it that American retail entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge was inspired to open his famous emporium in London’s Oxford Street during a visit to the city in 1906 - a shop assistant told him to leave when Selfridge said he was ‘just looking’.
The figures make impressive reading: he invested £400,000 in the new store; an advertising campaign costing £36,000 launched the venture, drawing 150,000 people to visit the huge sales area on the first day – the first week saw more than 1 million shoppers and browsers. And there was Selfridge ’s secret, the idea of shopping as a leisure activity, not just buying necessities; everyone welcome even if they have no intention to buy as they just might once inside. Staff – and there were 1000 of them – were trained to be pleasant not pushy. It was supposedly Selfridge who coined the phrase: “The customer is always right.”
With the luxurious scents wafting from the perfume counter near the entrance, the elegance of the building – its load-bearing steel structure still illegal at the time in London - its iconic sculpture over the front door, a quiet-room for recuperation, and liveried lift-attendants, the store was a destination in itself; it was in effect our first mall.
Selfridge increased his self-made fortune, but was eventually brought low by the Depression. The man who had once lived in Berkeley Square, and leased Hampshire’s Highcliffe Castle, ended his days in less-than-opulent circumstances in Putney .
The year 1909 was doubly important in our retail history, by the way. In November the first Woolworth’s in Britain opened in Liverpool to similar acclaim.
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