December 04, 2015

The modern Selfridge store.

The modern Selfridge department store at Christmas. Credit: traveljunction / Flickr Creative Commons

Whether you go in with an immense sense of dread or with determination, shopping in a department store during the holidays is practically unavoidable.  

Window displays lure you in, and the opportunity to try anything and everything can keep you there for hours.  

Almost inevitably, your first stop is the perfume and cosmetics counters… they’re the perfect height, have clean glass countertops, and they’re fully stocked with “try-me!” samples.  

This time of year, you’ll probably hear Bing Crosby crooning over the speakers, and red poinsettias strategically placed to remind you that the holidays are here.  

Where did all of this come from?  Why are stores so keen to tell us that there are only 20 days until Christmas?  

Look no further than Harry Gordon Selfridge.

“He was an egalitarian, he was a modernizer and he wanted to put the fun into shopping,” says Lindy Woodhead, author of Shopping, Seduction, and Mr. Selfridge. “He saw it as a pleasure and the more pleasure people got out of it, the longer they would stay in the the store.”

Selfridge was an American businessman who worked at Marshall Field’s in Chicago for 25 years before deciding to invest in opening his own store on Oxford Street in London in 1906.

“Harry was a genius… and created experience, and created theater of retailing.”

Building on his background at Marshall Field's, Selfridge created a department store unlike anything the world had ever known, packed with innovations – from elevators to security systems.

And his approach to the holidays was equally inventive.

“Part of Harry Selfridge's theater of retail was to bring that theater to the windows," says Woodhead. "And the windows in the store in London were the largest plate-glass windows anywhere in the world. He loved everything about Christmas in particular, and the store always smelled of cinnamon and they had the organist from Westminster Abbey [who] would come and play and the choir would sing Christmas carols, they’d hand out mince pies… and he used to flood the air conditioning units with perfume.”

Selfridge cared very much about the experience of both his employees and his customers. Woodhead adds, “He wasn't alone in doing that, but he was very much part of a movement and certainly at the vanguard of that movement in Great Britain.”

Now, the Christmas season goes hand in hand with window shopping, sipping hot chocolate, and unintentionally (OK, maybe intentionally) humming along to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas.” So the next time you go shopping, and are roped in by spiffy displays and cinnamon-scented everything, you can thank Harry Gordon Selfridge.

Selfridge, Business, shopping, Woodhead, Department Stores

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