LONDON — Back in 1888, it didn't take much for Harry Gordon Selfridge to realize London's retailers needed serious help.
Selfridge, who'd spent 25 years at Marshall Field's in Chicago and who would go on to found the legendary Oxford Street department store that bears his name, was browsing in a London emporium and came into contact with a particular species of sales assistant known as a "floorwalker."
"Is sir intending to buy something?" the floorwalker asked in his pseudo-posh voice, to which the dapper Selfridge replied no, he was just looking. "Then, 'op it mate!" snarled the floorwalker, ejecting Selfridge from the store. Two decades later, Selfridge returned to London, opened his own store and — not surprisingly — made customer service and the shopping "experience" his trademarks.
In her lively new biography, "Shopping, Seduction and Mr. Selfridge" (Profile Books Ltd.), Lindy Woodhead paints a colorful picture of the American who turned Edwardian England on to shopping, and who transformed shopping into a democratic sport, entertainment for the masses and a truly capitalist endeavor.
Before Selfridge arrived in England, there wasn't so much as a powder room in any stores, shop windows were a jumble of incongruous merchandise and rarely was there heating or even adequate lighting.
"He knew retail was about seduction and theater, understood that how things were sold was more important than what was sold, and that getting customers to come into the store was half the battle won," said Woodhead, a former fashion public relations rep-turned-author during an interview at her house in South London.
"He took consumerism into the 20th century, and we owe so much to him," added Woodhead, listing in-store escalators, air- conditioning, lighting techniques, staff training programs, celebrity appearances, in-store demonstrations, the cannily placed ground-floor beauty hall and the world's first television department among Selfridge's many innovations.
"The most important thing he did was actually to build the store, which was contemporary and modern. At the time, stores started in one place and, as they grew, expanded higgledy-piggledy into neighboring buildings," said Woodhead.
The author, who's been winning critical acclaim for her latest work, which was chosen as the prestigious "Book of the Week" on BBC's Radio 4, came across Selfridge's story a few years ago while she was researching her first book, "War Paint: Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, Their Lives, Their Times, Their Rivalry," published in 2003. She discovered Selfridge was pals with Arden, and that a dedicated Elizabeth Arden counter was a highlight of his beauty floor."I had the letters from Arden's London office — and read about the decline of Harry Selfridge in them," said Woodhead, referring to the sad end the high-flying, gambling, skirt-chasing Selfridge eventually met.
Her research would later take her to the extensive Selfridges' archives, housed at the History of Advertising Trust Archive in Norwich, England, and to the University of Chicago, Stanford and Harvard Business School, where his papers are kept. During her research, Woodhead discovered that Selfridge was Selfridges. Although 20th- and 21st-century retailing is packed with personalities — Fred Pressman, Mohamed Al Fayed, Rose Marie Bravo, Terry Lundgren and Kal Ruttenstein, to name a few — Selfridge's own generation was not. He was something of a one-off.
"He'd doff his hat to the public waiting outside the store in the morning, and don white tie and tails to go to the theater. He was a man about town — and the press loved him. He identified the importance of celebrity at a time when there weren't a lot of celebrities," she said.
But his sense of grandeur, exuberance and personal dramas would ultimately be his downfall. After losing his hard-won fortune on gambling, mistresses, bad investments, racehorses and, of course, fallout from the Great Depression, he died penniless in 1947 at age 91.
"He died in ignominy after the war: The Americans never regarded him because he left the country, and the Brits were jealous of his American innovation. It's all very sad," she said.
But Woodhead isn't the only one who's celebrating the once-forgotten entrepreneur. "Vittorio Radice fired the first shots — he understood the theater of retailing," said Woodhead, referring to Selfridges' former Italian chief executive. She added Selfridges' current owners, the Weston family, have an enormous respect and admiration for the heritage of the store.
"They're putting back Gordon's big plate glass windows, restoring his facade and the infrastructure of the building," she said, adding that Paul Kelly, Selfridges' current chief executive, also shares a certain habit with the late Mr. Selfridge.
"If Paul sees any dust in the store, he writes: 'Paul Kelly was here' on the surface. Selfridge would scrawl his initials 'HGS' on any dusty glass counters. I think that's just a coincidence," said Woodhead. "But, you know, retail is detail after all."
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