Selfridges is the high end department store dominating Oxford Street in London and for nearly one hundred years stood alone as the only department store in the world to bear that name, quite a surprise for one of the most instantly recognisable brand names in the world of retailing. Harry Gordon Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin on 11 January 1864 just months before his mother took him to live in Jackson, Michigan after his father had failed to return home from the American Civil War, despite being honourably discharged instead of dead. After a private education the young Selfridge moved to Chicago, securing employment with Field, Leiter and Company (a retailer that was later to become Macys), There he set about a twenty five year journey up the commercial ladder, amassing some considerable wealth of his own along the way. During this time it was Selfridge who coined the advertising phrases ‘Only ‘X’ More Shopping Days Until Christmas,’ and ‘the customer is always right,’ both of which are still used by just about everybody today.
In 1906 Selfridge decided to take some money, and his wife, to London were he was appalled by the existing department stores and their old fashioned sales methods and displays. Within weeks he had decided to invest four hundred thousand pounds, a considerable sum, in a piece of land at the unfashionable end of Oxford Street. There he built a brand new custom designed department store which opened under his own name on March 15th 1909. Always aware of the importance of customer services Selfridge trained is staff to assist customers and not sell to them, provided facilities for French, German, Italian and American visitors and persuaded the newly formed telephone company to give his store the privileged telephone number, London 1. He was also displayed a flair for marketing and after Louis Bleriot’s 1909 cross-channel flight Selfridge displayed the French aviator’s monoplane in his store, attracting twelve thousand visitors. And in 1925 the flamboyant retailer persuaded John Logie Baird to publicly demonstrate his new television, for the first time, at his premises.
Everything had been running smoothly for the entrepreneur and his fortune grew considerably until, in 1918, his wife Rosalie died during the influenza pandemic of that year, the brutal Spanish Flu. It was then, at the age of forty-four and rich beyond measure that Selfridge, a normally quiet and reserved man, found himself on the London society scene enjoying liaisons and affairs with the likes of Syne Barnado Wellcome and the Hungarian Dolly Sisters, a pair of teenage dancers who enjoyed particular notoriety on the Vaudeville circuit.
The Dolly Sisters made half a dozen films between 1913 and 1920 and were fabulously lucky gamblers, once winning nearly one million dollars in a single evening at a Paris casino. Soon they and H.Gordon Selfridge were lovers and their long downhill journey began. Eventually Jenny was involved in a serious car accident in 1933 and having failed to fully recover took her own life in 1941. Although her sister attempted to follow suit she failed and lived in poverty until her heart finally gave way 1970.
Meanwhile Gordon Selfridge had seen his considerable fortune dwindle away as a result of both his recklessness, during his later years, and The Great Depression that ruined many businessmen of the 1920’s. His increasingly erratic behaviour continued when he retired, in 1941, to spend his days travelling around London on a bus before dying, virtually a pauper, in a flat in Putney, south west London. But his reputation remains large, the character complex and his name will live on, possibly forever, on the busiest shopping street in the world.
Branded – The People Behind the World’s Biggest Brands
by Albert Jack
is due for release on August 12th 2015
Albert Jack books available for download here