Marketing Lessons from Mr. Selfridge

I have been watching Mr. Selfridge on PBS the last few Sunday evenings.  The show is based on the life of Harry Selfridge, an American-born retailer who opened a department store (Selfridges) in an unfashionable section of London in 1909.  He remained chairman of the store until 1941.  I knew nothing of Harry Selfridge until the show and some of the plot line seems a little over the top.  So I did some research to see how the small-screen Harry compared with the real person.

Selfridge earned his retail chops at Marshall Field, where he spent 25 years before a trip to London made him aware of an opportunity to bring the American style of retail to the West End of London.  He was indeed a creative promoter, but he also had some large personal demons, which the show delves into.  Many of Selfridge’s marketing lessons seem old school now, but in their day they were revolutionary to British customers.

Shopping for Pleasure – Selfridges focused on shopping as a pleasurable experience, not just a necessity.  The store had restaurants, a library, a writing room, music, readings by famous authors, etc.  The store focused on the entire shopping experience and keeping customers in the store as long as possible.

Show the Product – Selfridges put toiletries in plain sight to encourage buying.  It seems that prior to this the products were hidden behind a counter in London stores and customers had to ask for help with them.

The Customer is Always Right – Harry Selfridge (along with Marshall Field and John Wanamaker) is credited with coining this phrase.  It is often mistaken as meaning that you should give the customer what he or she wants.  Rather it means that the customer should be treated fairly, that he or she has been heard if there is a complaint, or that the customer has rights.  It was a novel concept in a time when “buyer beware” was the rule.

Understand the Competition – One episode focused on Frank Woolworth’s expansion into London.  Harry Selfridge, whose store catered to an upper-end middle class clientele, worried that Woolworth’s low prices would steal some of his customers.  Selfridge decided to use selective sales to pull price-sensitive customers into the store, where they would be enticed to buy higher-priced items.

Listen to Employees – Harry solicited input from employees on how the store could preempt Woolworth, since employees were closer to the customers.  One employee suggested creating a mid-season sale to draw customers.  Based on the dialog, it seems stores only held beginning of the year sales in that time period.  (Hard to believe when we now seem to have a sale every day of the week and every holiday.)  Other employees suggested ideas that would draw customers and retain them longer, including the idea of a loss leader sale.

Cause Marketing – The opening of Selfridges coincided with a more militant women’s suffrage in London.  While many in the upper classes were against the movement and its tactics, Harry Selfridge instinctively understood the changes happening and how “liberated” women would transform his store.  Long before cause marketing became fashionable, Harry Selfridge embraced women’s suffrage by allowing informal meetings to be held at the store.

While not the best British import on PBS, Mr. Selfridge does provide some historic narrative and a glimpse at retail marketing 100 years ago.   It’s worth a watch to see how Harry came up with and implemented ideas, and challenged conventional thinking.



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