Harry Gordon Selfridge, Sr. 1858 – 1947 was an American-born retail magnate, who founded the British department store Selfridges.
Selfridge was a sponsor and an advocate of homeopathy, and he hosted a series of fund raising events for homeopathy at his home, Lansdowne House, (previously the home of Henry Charles Keith Petty Fitzmaurice 5th Marquess of Lansdowne),
Gordon Selfridge was born in Ripon, Wisconsin, USA on January 11, 1858, but within months of his birth moved to Jackson, Michigan. His father did not return home after the Civil War, although he had been honourably discharged, so his mother supported the family by teaching school.
In 1879, Selfridge joined the retail firm of Field, Leiter and Company (which became Marshall Field and Company.) in Chicago. Over the following 25 years, Selfridge worked his way up the commercial ladder. He was appointed a junior partner, married Rosalie Buckingham (of the prominent Chicago Buckinghams) and amassed a considerable personal fortune.
While at Marshall Field, he was the first to promote Christmas sales with the phrase “Only __ Shopping Days Until Christmas”, a catchphrase that quickly was picked up by retailers in other markets. Either he or Marshall Field is also credited with originating the phrase “The customer is always right.”
He didn’t make up that phrase out of whole cloth. Hotelier César Ritz advertised in 1908, ‘Le client n’a jamais tort’ (‘The customer is never wrong’). He translated the slogan and gave it a positive twist. John Wanamaker took note of the advertising, and was soon using that phrase in promoting his Philadelphia based department store chain.
In 1906, Selfridge travelled to London, England with his wife. He was unimpressed with the quality of existing British stores and decided to invest some £400,000 in building his own department store in what was then the unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. The new store, Selfridges, opened to the public on March 15, 1909. It set new standards for the retailing business.
At that time, women were beginning to enjoy the fruits of emancipation by wandering unescorted around the city of London. A canny marketer, Selfridge promoted the radical notion of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. The store was extensively promoted through paid advertising.
The shop floors were structured so that goods could be made more accessible to customers. There were elegant restaurants with modest prices, a library, reading and writing rooms, special reception rooms for French, German, American and “Colonial” customers, a First Aid Room, and a Silence Room, with soft lights, deep chairs, and double-glazing, all intended to keep customers in the store as long as possible. Staff members were taught to be on hand to assist customers, but not too aggressively, and to sell the merchandise.
Selfridge’s wife died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. As a widower, Selfridge had numerous liaisons, including those with the celebrated Dolly Sisters and the divorcee Syrie Barnardo Wellcome, who would later become better known as the decorator Syrie Maugham.
He also began and maintained a busy social life with lavish entertainment at his home in Lansdowne House located at 9 Fitzmaurice Place, in Berkeley Square. Today there is a blue plaque noting that Gordon Selfridge lived there from 1921 to 1929.
At the height of his fortune, he also leased, as his family home, Highcliffe Castle in Hampshire. In addition, he purchased Hengistbury Head, a mile long promontory on England’s southern coast, where he planned to build a magnificent castle. The land was put up for sale in 1930.
During the years of the Great Depression, Selfridge watched his fortune rapidly decline and then disappear – a situation not helped by his continuing free spending ways.
In 1941, he left Selfridges and moved from his lavish home and traveled around London by bus. In 1947, he died in straitened circumstances, at Putney, in south-west London. Selfridge was buried in St Mark’s Churchyard at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.
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