Mr Selfridge: how the recently celebrated entrepreneur of the early twentieth century is still influencing commerce, PR and marketing today

Mr Selfridge: how the recently celebrated entrepreneur of the early twentieth century is still influencing commerce, PR and marketing today

Simon Bibby

Simon Bibby

I’m not a fan of period dramas. Hammy acting and a focus on the tribulations of bored rich aristocracy isn’t my cup of tea; which is why I usually go and make one when the Firefly office chat looks like veering down towards Downton Abbey. If you were in the same horse and carriage as me watching ITV’s Mr Selfridge pilot episode - I doubt most of the 8 million viewers were – this blog shares historical facts about Harry Selfridge’s seductive shopping vision and just might be up your street. I might not like period dramas, but there’s a lot to like about the story behind Mr Selfridge.

Like all successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, Mr Selfridge knew the value of marketing communications and the importance of the press when launching a new enterprise. Having installed Downtown’s chief screenwriter, Andrew Davies, I was intrigued to see his initial focus for the main protagonist’s affections wasn’t a female lead but courting The Illustrated London News.

As his overheads mounted and financial backers pulled out, Mr Selfridge continued to invest in advertising and networking with connected journalists. Bill Gates apparently famously (among PRs anyway) said if he was down to his last cent he would spent it on PR. Both icons have secured their place in history as a result of sharp business acumen and wanting to share it with the world.

It’s debatable if entrepreneurs are born or made, but what is clear is that the brightest blaze a trail from an early age. Episode one of Mr Selfridge makes reference to his first job selling newspapers, and it's been suggested he was editor of his own publication aged 12. I'm sure if he had been born in our time, you would be reading his blog along with that of Ophelia Horton, a pre-teen fashion blogger of the same age who shot to fame in 2011 for sitting front row at London Fashion Week.

Like all successful entrepreneurs, Harry had more than the trick of turning an idea into an enterprise up his sleeve. Selfridge prevailed in marketing, famously coining the phrase that "the customer is always right" as well as "only ‘X’ shopping days until Christmas”. An adage Don Draper’s fictional character would have been proud of, it remains among the most widely practiced marketing tactics alive today. The only thing I presume that could be beyond his comprehension, was how early the Christmas season started last year.

As I have written about previously on the Firefly blog, era defining entrepreneurs go beyond spotting a gap in the market and strive to impart social and economic development. In the noughties of the 19th century, women’s emancipation from traditional roles had evolved, with women of established wealth and social stature gaining unprecedented influence. The pilot episode introduced two contrasting female characters in this light that look set to have important roles in the store’s development as the series plays out. Avoiding politics and infidelity at the time of writing, Selfridge’s stated ambition was for “people to buy things they didn't know they wanted". Steve Jobs used this ethos to redefine Apple by pairing today’s seductive tech aesthetics of visual and functionality design. With the invention of choice, perceived value and convenience, the modern consumer culture was born.

More than pure sympathy for the suffragettes that had gone before, Selfridge realised this movement was the key to keeping customers in his new department store. There's a scene in the pilot episode in one of the lavish restaurants and a window display plot line which Selfridges is still famous for today. The light bulb moment for his department store vision in London, it is now a mainstay in modern department stores is to promote his strategy of enticing customers in and keeping them there for as long as possible.

Selfridges' technology footprint is also notable. We've been treated to a revolutionary sprinkler system already and Selfridge also saw the importance of the telephone in customer service. Dialling '1' meant anyone in the UK would be connected to Selfridges’ telephone operators.  He also submitted planning permission for a Tube station to be built under his store. While that didn’t come to fruition, the world's hyper luxury department stores and shopping centres of today all have this infrastructure built in to their blueprints.

Having worked in retail PR for half of my professional career, I have always admired the Selfridges brand and shopping experience, but knew little of its heritage as a location for pioneering commerce. In the past, if I wanted a heritage shopping experience in London I would seek out the creaking floorboards of nearby Liberty’s. Last weekend I decided it was time for a trip to Selfridges to look for the first time at what remains of Harry’s vision for his department store when he moved to the UK from America in 1907. I didn’t come away with many shopping bags, but at least Mr Selfridge can take comfort that I’ll now be talking more about his brand as well as participating in the costume period office banter.

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