Is Selfridges anachronistic or retail’s ticket to recovery?

Photo: Getty Images
Sep 01, 2017
Al McClain

As legacy brick and mortar retailers continue to be battered by the likes of Amazon, we thought it might be instructive to take a look at the history of Selfridges, the UK department store started by American Harry Gordon Selfridge.

According to the BBC, prior to Selfridges’ opening in 1909, many London shops thought customers should be there to buy something. Recreating the department store experience popularized in America, Harry Selfridge encouraged “browsing” with merchandise in open display. Cosmetics and fragrances were in the front of the store, not locked away. Abandoning the tradition of arcades catering to the upper class, Selfridges welcomed the “whole British public.”

But Selfridges was (and is) always about the experience. The enormous Oxford Street flagship in its early days showcased the largest glass windows in the world, renowned for their displays of merchandise and artwork. Lighting was soft, price tags were mostly absent, live music played, women were catered to (gasp!) and customers were referred to as “guests”.

The retailer also drew attention with spectacles. The Londonist says that soon after the initial opening, the store attracted 150,000 people in four days after exhibiting the first plane to fly across the English Channel. Ever the entertainer, Harry Selfridge installed a seismograph in the building in the 1930’s, to pick up readings from earthquakes. The summer rooftop was used for all sorts of entertainment. Close relationships with the media ensured generous coverage of events, stunts, promotions, etc.

Nowadays, Selfridges brags about offering the largest shoe department in the world and the tradition of entertainment continues, with workshops on such things as the “art” of peeling potatoes properly.

According to The Guardian, the idea is to help folks de-stress, get away from their phones, and “reconnect.” Other workshops focus on activities like grinding spices, tying herbs and making tea with tea leaves. Everything takes place in a “farmhouse” in the basement, where attendees derive pleasure from simple tasks, and take time to appreciate everyday activities. Selfridges says their goal today is to “surprise, amaze, and amuse its customers by delivering extraordinary customer experiences.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What retailers are the “Selfridges of today”? Is a goal to “surprise, amaze, and amuse” shoppers enough to revitalize in-store traffic in today’s department stores?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"When 50 percent of Millennials prefer to primarily shop in-store, the thing to keep them coming back is the experience, adventure or delight."
"Brick-and-mortar retailers should read about Selfridges. What’s new becomes old and then returns as new!"
"...experience, wonder, excitement — yes, but only on a manageable scale!"

Join the Discussion!

12 Comments on "Is Selfridges anachronistic or retail’s ticket to recovery?"

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Art Suriano

I always tell retailers — you have to be different. The problem is most are not. They chase after one another with no identity of their own. Apple comes to mind as being different and so does Starbucks but, after that, it’s a challenge to think of others.

Retailers could learn a lot from Selfridges, and if they seriously focused on their stores and how to make them stand aside from their competitors, they could easily come up with concepts and programs that would make customers respond. But as long as it’s only price and product with the blind message of “here we are so come shop us” without any real reason to, they’ll never become the retail chain they could be. I commend Selfridges for standing its ground and not conforming to the “sameness” of all the other retailers. They have proven the point that “being different” works!

Neil Saunders

There is no denying that Selfridges is a fantastic retailer. The cavernous Oxford Street store is a spectacle and never fails to generate a sense of excitement and wonder.

However, the store is horrible to shop — especially if you are looking for something specific. It is too large, too fragmented and its rabbit warren-like layout leaves even the hardiest of consumers confused and exhausted.

This may not matter for a flagship in one of the world’s foremost tourist locations. However the model translates less well to most other stores in most other places.

So experience, wonder, excitement — yes, but only on a manageable scale!

Charles Dimov

Bass Pro Shops jumps to mind. They make the shopping an adventure. Even if you are not a camper, when you see all the displays set in a location that looks like the wilderness, it makes you mind wander to, “it would be cool to use this when … ” That’s exactly the experience you want for shoppers.

When 50 percent of Millennials prefer to primarily shop in-store (according to SmarterHQ), the thing to keep them coming back is the experience, adventure or delight. Keep it up Selfridges!

Brandon Rael
Selfridges is certainly an iconic store; one that transformed the department store into a social and cultural landmark via relentless innovation and passion. This was accomplished by focusing on customer experience — creating a welcoming and innovative multi-sensory environment. Selfridges established a fun adventure and turned shopping into a form of leisure instead of a chore. While the customer expectations remain the same, the desire to go to a large-scale department store or big box store may not be there for the digital native generation. Department stores should pursue strategies that have worked very well for what are known as the “hybrid retailers.” Hybrid retailing is a customer obsessed blend of the digital and physical worlds. The shop-within-a-shop concept worked well back in Selfridges’ day, and it will continue to resonate well today. Also pop-ups and exclusive limited-time offers help to drive excitement. Innovative retailers who started off as digital-first companies then strategically rolled out physical shops/showrooms, such as Bonobos and Warby Parker, are the pioneers in the new shopping paradigm. They have driven an… Read more »
Adrian Weidmann

Brick-and-mortar retailers should read about Selfridges. What’s new becomes old and then returns as new! The wheel has turned again and retailers need to be in “show business” — not just a box with stuff on shelves. In the Hollywood-centric visual world we live in, the shopping experience should explore a theater environment. Digital screens should be a palette on which brands can tell their stories in creative ways that connect emotionally with shoppers. I’d rather actually read a chalk board menu than look at a sanitized high-definition close-up of a hamburger — one that uses color to convey a message rather than the Arial font.

The retail experience is undergoing a seismic change — where are the corresponding seismic creative changes?

Ryan Mathews

I’m not sure there is a pure parallel. Costco certainly encourages browsing, aka treasure hunting. Bass Pro Shops offers an experience-based shopping experience. But … spectacle? Maybe a new iPhone release at the Apple store. Seriously Selfridges is — for better and worse — sort of a one-of-a-kind operation. There are smaller, boutique retailers that create excitement like b8ta, and ones that take merchandising to new and innovative heights like STORY in New York City but, at scale, it’s a very short list.

Cate Trotter

I’ve long been an advocate for experience in physical retail — give shoppers something they can’t get elsewhere and they’ll make the effort to come back. I think if we’re talking about retailers that are all about experience then Lush, particularly the Oxford Street store, is a great example. It ticks all of the “surprise, amaze and amuse” boxes. Think how different shopping for bath supplies and toiletries there is compared to the Boots of this world. They’ve taken something that could be considered a boring, essential purchase and made it super fun.

Department stores can struggle to differentiate themselves (often they offer the same or very similar things), so Selfridges is a great example of how to bring theater and excitement into those spaces. It can also be tricky to narrow down who their customer is — if you’re a space with something for everyone then targeting can be difficult. But experiences are often universally enjoyed so can be a great way to bring people in.

Peter Luff
It’s better to have Millennials commenting on this rather than us old duffers, but what I can observe at a personal level is that my 18-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter really like a quality in-store experience, assuming they are made to feel special or are thrilled by the experience. I should add, as someone north of 50, guess what? I like to get that feeling to! John Lewis does this really well through their loyalty card scheme; they invite you to preview events, as you walk around you are given a glass of sparkle for my wife and I, (and now my son at 18!), chocolate tastings, demonstrations in what appears an exclusive, in the broadest terms, arrangement. At the same time there are stores that come about the engagement in other ways. Just this month we were in the Coca Cola store in Las Vegas and my son absolutely loved it — totally immersed in the brand, something he simply could not do online or on a phone. There are examples out there, but… Read more »
Ken Morris
Ken Morris
Managing Partner Cambridge Retail Advisors
3 years 8 months ago
Selfridges and several other European retailers like Harrods and Galeries Lafayette have a strong reputation for infusing entertainment into the shopping experience. These companies have done a phenomenal job of making their stores a destination for consumers that enjoy the theater of shopping. John Lewis is now offering their customers “sleepovers” to test out their products saying, “We are not just selling you a mattress; we are selling you a perfect night’s sleep.” In the U.S., one company that stands out in offering a truly interactive, entertaining experience is Bauer Hockey. The have opened a few “Own The Moment Hockey Experience” stores that are amazing. With all of Bauer Hockey’s latest innovations and technology under one roof, the retail experience features Personal Fit Experts to guide you through a one-of-a-kind process, customizing your gear based on your level, and style of play. In addition, there’s an indoor rink where you’ll get an opportunity to try the gear on ice to ensure you’re getting the best fit for you and your game. With brick-and-mortar stores and… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

“Guests”…so Harry’s to blame! Hmph.

Back on topic: Selfridges is the quintessential “flagship” — although since for years in was the only unit if might be said to be a flagship for the brand rather than a chain — but it also has all the elements in place to make it work: location (in a world class, tourist mecca) a large and affluent resident population, and uniqueness (would it work as well if a dozen stores imitated it?).

There are still stores like that today, including of course Selfridges itself, Apple and Bass Pro/Cabella’s come to mind. But I’m not sure that means they should or even can be a model for everyone else … most of the time we want a “store” not a “theater.”

Peter Luff

Everyone keeps referencing Apple as a success. Historically I accept that it was truly innovative when it first came out as a format, but now isn’t it actually rather dull? There is no real “new” experience in an Apple store. For me Apple lacks surprise, a key ingredient of experience, it therefore fails the Selfridge test. Thoughts?

William Passodelis

Selfridges remembers and understands that the “show” is important. If you want people in your store then give them a reason to get up and out of their pajamas and into their car and into the parking lot and into the building — and that requires a LOT more than a 25% extra off coupon.

Look at what major department stores in ANY U.S. city would do 50 years ago. Look at what Selfridges does. There are a lot of various “things” going on in store.

A lot of soap operas went off the air because they were expensive and “realty” TV was cheaper and more compelling. You must be compelling and there are a lo of ways to do that, but do it!

No one who is failing understands that today…and it is so easy to sit on your couch and scroll!

"When 50 percent of Millennials prefer to primarily shop in-store, the thing to keep them coming back is the experience, adventure or delight."
"Brick-and-mortar retailers should read about Selfridges. What’s new becomes old and then returns as new!"
"...experience, wonder, excitement — yes, but only on a manageable scale!"

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