We are all familiar with “rags to riches” stories about people who started with nothing and became extremely successful and/or famous. Stories such as these are what America is all about. Well, this one is a little different – call it a “rags to riches to rags” story.
Harry Gordon Selfridge was born on January 11, 1858 in Ripon, Wisconsin. He was one of three boys. Harry had a very sad, tough childhood. When he was less than one year old the family moved to Jackson, Michigan, and his father bought the town’s general store. During the Civil War his father enlisted in the Union Army. Following the war he simply failed to return home, abandoning his family. In addition, Harry’s two brothers died at young ages leaving just his mother and him to fend for themselves. His mother found employment as a headmistress in the local high school, but her salary was not nearly enough to support them.
Harry began working part time at the age of ten delivering newspapers. At 14, he was forced to quit school altogether and work full time to help support the family. He worked at a succession of jobs, including at a bank, a dry goods store, as a bookkeeper at a furniture store, and finally, at Marshal Fields Department Store in Chicago. He started there as a stock boy, but over the years he worked his way up to junior partner. Along the way, he married into a very wealthy and prominent local family and became a wealthy man in his own right. In 1904 he opened his own store, named Harry G. Selfridge and Co., but shortly thereafter, he sold it at a tidy profit and decided to retire at the young age of 46.
For the next two years Harry lived a life of aimless leisure, doing “a little of this and a little of that.” Then, in 1906, while on vacation in London he realized that for all of the city’s cultural and commercial prowess, its department stores were decidedly inferior to those in Chicago. So, Harry purchased a department store in an “unfashionable” section of the city for 400,000 pound sterling (about $1.1 million, a considerable sum at the time). The store opened in 1909 and was a rousing success due, in large part, to Harry’s innovative marketing. For example:
- He promoted his store as a place where shoppers could do so for pleasure, not just out of necessity. This seems logical to us today, but in 1909 it was a radical notion.
- The floors were arranged to make merchandise more accessible to shoppers who would be encouraged to browse.
- Employees were trained to be accessible, but not obtrusive. If need be, they would be prepared to actually “sell” the merchandise.
- He provided diversions to encourage customers to linger, not just shop and run. He reasoned that as long as the customer remained in the store he or she might buy something. Thus, he provided amenities such as restaurants, a library, a reading room, first aid room and a “silence room” in which to relax. Also, shoppers who did not speak English could find assistance from employees who spoke foreign languages, such as French or German.
- He arranged for the store to have a private telephone number “Gerrard 1” so that a prospective customer could be connected to a Selfridge operator quickly.
- Service was paramount, and the shoppers loved it.
- Harry also treated his employees very well, and they liked and respected him for it.
Selfridge’s became immensely successful, especially during WWI. But then, tragedy struck. His wife died in 1918, a victim of the infamous Flu Pandemic. His mother followed in 1924. Harry was all alone. He began to live a reckless lifestyle, dissipating his fortune on gambling , show girls and extravagant spending. In addition, like most everyone else, the Great Depression hit both his company and him, personally, very hard. In 1941 he was forced out of his own company, and it was all downhill from there. Harry died of bronchial pneumonia virtually destitute on May 8, 1947 in London at the age of 89. Fittingly, he is buried next to his wife and mother.
Harry and Selfridge’s are not particularly well-known in the US, except, perhaps, among very dedicated shoppers, however, in the UK he was among the most respected, innovative, and wealthiest of retail magnates. In addition to the innovations listed above while at Field’s in Chicago he is credited with being the first retailer to promote Christmas sales with the phrase: “Only ____ Shopping Days Until Christmas.”
Some of the principles by which Harry ran his business can be epitomized by the following quotes, which have been attributed to him:
- “The customer is always right.”
- “The boss drives his men; the leader coaches them.”
- “The boss depends on authority, the leader on goodwill.”
- “The boss inspires fear; the leader inspires enthusiasm.”
- “The boss says ‘I’; the leader , “we.’ “
- “The boss fixes the blame for the breakdown; the leader fixes the breakdown.”
- “The boss says ‘Go;’ the leader says ‘Let’s go.’ “
Finally, if you are interested in finding out more about Harry Selfridge you can watch the television series Mr. Selfridge on Amazon Prime Video. My wife, who urged me to write this particular blog, has seen it and strongly recommends it. If you should watch it, I would welcome your opinion.