St. Nick will arrive next week and somehow gain access to our homes – video doorbells and security keypads notwithstanding. With Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday long past, we are down to last-minute, socially-distanced shopping trips even as delivery trucks fan out across our highways and byways.
Lest my readers think I am describing the current holiday shopping season as impacted – maybe even distorted – by restrictions unique to 2020, I ask: Are things really so different this year? Okay, last year we didn’t cover our faces, nor did we follow directional footprints applied to store floors, still …
Considering my own question, I remembered London’s luxury department store, Selfridges, featured in a PBS documentary suggesting that shopping and retailing have always been all about trend. Regardless of decade or century, shoppers will always be buying, retailers will always be selling, and the economy will always be on the line. Perhaps there are more similarities than differences during any shopping season in any era – even smack dab in the middle of a pandemic.
Selfridges, already recognized four times this century as the world’s best department store, is second in size only to its retail competitor, Harrods of London – Europe’s largest department store. With 9 floors, 540,000 square feet of floorspace, and 16 restaurants, Selfridges sort of puts the swank in swanky!
When founder Harry Selfridge traveled from Chicago to London in 1906, he was surprised by the city’s outdated shops, devoid of the modern selling techniques embraced by American retailers. Working with Daniel Burnham – who also designed Marshall Field’s in Chicago and Gimbels in New York City – Selfridge opened his “flagship retail emporium” in 1909 with one hundred departments and a rooftop terrace.
From our small-town vantage point, we may find it difficult to visualize such a posh place. However, memories of Lazarus during its heyday in midtown Columbus offer at least a pale comparison with the London store: the windows, the merchandise, the displays, the tearoom. I always felt the need to dress up when shopping at the downtown icon with 150 years of fashionable history, a retail symbol that unceremoniously slipped away several years ago.
For me, the fascinating part of the PBS presentation was not the luxurious aspect of Selfridges – or any other major department store, for that matter. Much more interesting were the historical and societal changes that have always brought such innovation to the store on Oxford Street.
Remembering that American women won the freedom to vote a mere one hundred years ago helps us understand other freedoms women were beginning to enjoy at the turn of the century. It was slowly becoming acceptable for a woman to go alone into the city. Capitalizing on that trend, Selfridges set high standards for merchandise, displays, and employees, thereby becoming a respectable place of business – where an unescorted lady could spend time choosing goods for purchase.
Further, Harry Selfridge introduced the concept of shopping for pleasure rather than necessity. By creating an atmosphere of elegance and sophistication, he elevated shopping from task to experience. Moving perfume and cosmetic departments from closed side rooms to prominent display areas upfront and providing public restrooms added to the aura.
Selfridges made merchandise more accessible to customers. Traditionally, shopgirls brought requested items to customers waiting at the counter to inspect the merchandise. Selfridges instead displayed items so that shoppers could touch them, with staff members assisting rather than presenting wares.
Harry Selfridge’s retail wisdom also involved keeping customers in the store as long as possible. Thus, available for shoppers were first aid stations, reception rooms with interpreters for foreign guests, reading rooms, a post office, theater- booking facilities, and salons. To further enhance the overall shopping experience, he added a bookstore, a pet department, and exhibitions of current interest.
Armed with the knowledge that window displays could sell 20% of the store’s merchandise, Selfridges’ initiated legendary displays to be enjoyed outside at the street level – much like those storied Christmas windows at the Lazarus now so long ago.
Finally, for convenience and the transport of bulky items, Harry Selfridge organized a fleet of vans prominently displaying the company logo, an innovation boosting store business – and customer status – as neighbors observed such deliveries. By the way, in order to broaden the range of potential customers to include the elite and not-so-elite, Selfridges added a bargain basement.
Buying experiences and selling techniques have evolved over the years as we have moved from shoppes and emporia to boutiques, malls, and big-box stores on our way to eBay and websites. What has remained a constant, however, is the willingness to adapt our shopping practices to current conditions, whatever they may be for whatever reason. Nowadays we shop online at midnight, with deliveries made right to our doors. If we want to touch some of the stuff we buy, we head out for an in-store experience. Our shopping needs also include services of hairdressing, nailcare, and pet grooming available in small shops conveniently located.
Harry Selfridge had his own way with words. Attributed to him are: “The customer is always right,” and “Give the lady what she wants.” However, this statement aptly summarizes the many aspects of shopping trends throughout the ages: “People will sit up and take notice of you if you will sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice.”
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.