Nov 20, 20184 min read

How a Retail Hero Born in 1858 Can Lift Your E-Store.

philip moore headshot

by Philip Moore

More than a 100 years ago, retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge completely transformed the shopping experience. He took an industry that was rigid and unwelcoming and turned it on its head. Selfridge is widely credited with popularising the maxim ‘The Customer is Always Right’. And goodness, didn’t he try to make his customers know it.

Before Harry Selfridge entered the stage, people were familiar with shopping as a chore. Goods behind the counter, unhelpful staff and an unwelcoming environment. Selfridge wanted to do things differently. He established his department store Selfridges in 1906 with the mission of becoming the best in the world. The cornerstone of his new endeavor was understanding what customers really wanted and how to make sure they came through the doors and stayed for hours.

So what did he actually innovate? And what can we learn from him in our developing age of e-commerce? Here are some of his greatest ideas and what I think it addresses in our new retail world.

Harry G Selfridge understood that the customer wants:

To be entertained. Selfridges was one of the first shops in Britain to display fantastical scenes in the windows facing the main shopping street. Customers in the 1910s marveled over the sights and were enticed into the building in much the same way we can’t help but tune into the spectacle of a new iPhone launch. Furthermore, Selfridge commissioned scientific and educational exhibits with wonders from around the world to attract visitors who would in turn make immediate and long term purchases. Selfridge understood that entertaining and inspiring consumers would make his store a place to visit regularly and thus generate sales. How can you entertain and excite your customers? How does your online space draw in the crowds that then makes them stick around to see what else is there?

To be understood. Selfridge pioneered the relationship between the customer and the product. The shop floors were arranged so that products were accessible to visitors. They were invited to pick up and investigate the item they considered buying. Selfridge knew that the customer wanted to understand what they were looking at before they commit to the purchase. This is one that is especially important in our new paradigm of internet shopping and the e-store. How do you make sure that the customer is informed about the product? Is the solution good descriptions and pictures or free shipping and an open returns policy?

To be supported. The front line of Selfridge’s new department store was his staff. He wanted the shop assistants to provide guidance and support to customers without becoming aggressive or pushy. The key approach was to assist – they might not buy this product but is there anything else I can help you with? A familiar concept to us now, but not in Victorian Britain. Selfridge wanted his staff to be well dressed and even visit the hairdresser every morning to look sharp and presentable. A touch extreme perhaps but groundbreaking doesn’t come easy. What does a shop assistant look like online? A 24-hour chat function or handy pop up tips to help consumers that get stuck?

To enjoy shopping. This is the most important element Selfridge promoted. He wanted to create a space that ensured patrons enjoyed shopping rather than finding it laboursome or unpleasant. In this endeavor he pioneered situating the perfume department at the entrance so that guests would be greeted with gorgeous smells upon entry. He included a library, reading, writing and silent rooms in the store along with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing. By creating an environment around the buying experience that customers would appreciate, Selfridge turned shopping into an event and an enjoyable one at that. Think retail therapy rather than retail stress. How do we make online shopping not only easy but enjoyable? What makes your e-store stand out when everyone else is focusing on a quick turnaround?

These innovations and many others contributed towards creating what we believe to be normal in the modern retail experience. Harry G Selfridge sought to reinvent the industry and succeeded, establishing quality customer service as a standard worldwide. With Selfridge’s foundation, the stage is now set for an entrepreneur to lead us into a new e-shopping paradigm. Will it be you?