Innovative Retailer: Selfridges

Brought to you by Retail Insider and Flooid

Name: Selfridges

The Place: One of the grande dames of the department stores of London’s Oxford Street (and now Birmingham and Manchester too) but one which has always been a bit wild and exuberant and just a teeny bit off the wall. Like Princess Margaret to the Queen’s Fortnum & Mason if you will. There used to be 16 little mini Selfridges but these were sold off in the 1940s to John Lewis. Nowadays the chain is owned by Wittington Investments run by the Weston family which also owns…wait for it…Fortnum & Mason.

The Story:  Seriously, have you not watched the TV series about brash Yankee Harry Selfridge?

I think that might have been mainly fiction: Well you say that but they definitely got some of it right. The showmanship, the slightly un-English razzamatazz of it all, the business of the perfume counter in the front hall (shocking), the Bleriot aeroplane on show and other such dramatic Edwardian moments.

But just in case I haven’t watched the programme… Sigh. Selfridges was founded in 1909 by the American businessman Harry Gordon Selfridge – he was determined to shake up the fuddy duddy world of retail in Blighty and built what is still an absolute behemoth of a building on Oxford Street (only Harrods has a bigger store in the whole of the UK). A whopping number of huge floors full of stuff to buy.

So the first retailtainment supremo way before that was even a thing: He so was. From the very beginning it was about fun, fun, fun. The famous roof terrace soon housed a mini-golf course and let’s not forget the all-girl gun-club.

Never mind the putting, girls. Where are the guns?

Excuse me? Oh yes, didn’t you know. It was full of women … err… shooting things during the 1920s and 1930s. As the late great Harry himself put it: “A department store should be a social centre, not merely a place for shopping.” A man truly before his time dedicated to giving, especially women, a place to be themselves doing one of the only things society sanctioned them to do on their own – shopping. Now of course it’s just as much the kids’ pounds retailers are chasing – cue a skate bowl now operating up there on the roof with views over Oxford Street.

Nice. OK, moving along because that’s still a century ago you know and we are all about the here and now: It has always prided itself on being at the forefront of things. Hencethe genius that was television inventor John Logie Baird demonstrated an early prototype of his ground-breaking device in the electrical section of Selfridges store in 1925. And just a few years later, Selfridges would go on to sell the very first television sets – now that’s continuity of marketing. Do you want another one?

Go on then, just a quickie: One of the first stunts Mr S ever pulled was arranging for the Bleriot monoplane, which flew the first cross channel flight, to be exhibited in the store. An astonishing 150,000 people viewed the plane over four days and no doubt stopped to have a good old nose about in the newly opened Selfridges store too. Keep ‘em where you want ‘em.

He just knew what captured the public: They’re still doing it you know – putting something big in the ground floor to attract attention.  On Retail Insider’s visit there was a new kind of e-jeep hogging the limelight in the middle of the make-up aisles…

Who left that there?

Old habits eh. But is it still a place to socialise? Crikey and how!You could spend days in this place and seamlessly go from breakfast to lunch to afternoon tea to wine bar. There are places dedicated to healthy eating, to unhealthy eating, to cocktails, to salt beef – you will find a niche for you! Your other time could be spent having your hands hennaed, your ears pierced, your nails done, your hair cut (there are no less than five different salons), your make up done, and your eyes tested. All topped off with a walk-in back rub.

More places to eat than you can shake a chocofruit at

Tattoos? Not yet. But I am sure it’s only a matter of time. While we wait can I interest you in the full Selfridges makeover?

Umm: For a mere £120 the lucky customer moves from a 45-minute manicure to a 45-minute blow dry to a 60-minute facial makeover.

That’s actually a bit of a steal: Tell me about it. And full of upselling possibilities too. In fact during lockdown the store has made a very innovative, necessary and successful transition over to the personalised appointment system. So a consumer can get an appointment for a gifting concierge (called Elfridges – geddit?) or for a personal stylist, or for a beauty consultation either in-store or virtually. There are free and paid for options but it is the hand-holding and curated concierge system that consumers are really valuing. Heck, there is even a food concierge service.

Stop it: There is. They can help you organise a special dinner party or just advise you on the normal household shop and if you are local enough they will deliver it right over to you. But it’s not all about decadence you know.

It isn’t? Nope. Selfridges is on a mammoth environmental mission too. Project Earth.

Blimey, that sounds serious: It has brought a whole load of new services and ways of purchasing in-store that you might not associate with a luxury department store. First up rental.  The management has teamed up with another of Retail Insider’s interviewees HURR Collective the peer-to-peer rental platform, which now has a physical space in the store.

Lovely: Then there’s refill. Lots of options in beauty and home solutions departments for topping up your bottles and jars.

Liking it so far: Next up resale. Selfridges first venture into the world of pre-loved designer gear. Guess what they’ve called it.

Go on: Resellfridges. Obviously. And finally there is repair – another new service. And all this is underpinned with a new and clear labelling system meaning you can work out exactly what is cruelty free, forest-friendly, made in the UK and so on and so forth.

Phew: I know, they’ve gone all out on circularity. Too early to say what the effect on revenues will be but last released figures rose 6% year-on-year to £1.85 billion and that was credited to the enhanced focus on customer experience. This is spread out across all four of its stores (one London flagship, one in Birmingham, and two in Manchester).

OMG literally all they need now is a cinema and all the customer bases are covered: Um. There is a cinema.

Of course there is. How stupid of me. And what does all this teach us? When so many people are saying that the large department store has had its day Selfridges shows us that offering a lot more than shopping is the key to keeping people in and crucially spending.

Yeah, kind of like a social centre: Now where have I heard that before?

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