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.
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