11 January marks the birthday of Harry Selfridge in 1858. Selfridge’s innovation, philosophy and drive, helped to revolutionize the retail business. Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin. His father joined the Union Army in the Civil War, surviving the conflict, but never returning to his family. Harry Selfridge would begin work at age 10 to support the family, and leave school altogether to work full time when he was 14.
He began to show his genius for retail while employed at Marshall Fields in Chicago, where he is credited with designing the ‘Only ___ days until Christmas!’ promotion. Although the claim that while working at Marshall Field’s he coined the phrase, ‘The customer is always right’, is dubious, he did make it a cornerstone of his philosophy and also penned a number of other maxims as to how one should manage people. They include…
“The boss says ‘Go’; the leader says ‘Let’s go!'”
“The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.”
“The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.”
In 1906, he traveled to London and found the city far out of step with such retail centers as Chicago and fashion capital’s like Paris. Sensing the opportunity to fill this gap he opened ‘SELFRIDGES’ in London in 1909. London would soon become aware of his genius for promotion and publicity. Selfridge was ahead of the curve in both commerce and societal changes. Selfridge focused on the female shopper and was the first to install female toilets in his shop and became a prominent supporter of women’s suffrage, even flying their banner from his storefront. Selfridge didn’t always find an easy time of it in London, once saying, “I was pretty much the wild and untamed man from the west, and for me to introduce American business methods to Londoners was regarded as no less than an intrusion.”
The 650,000 Square foot store on Oxford Street in London still bears his name.