Who invented shopping?

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By WalterThornton

As you set off for a bit of a Saturday spending spree today, spare a thought for the man who made it all possible.

A true high-street visionary, Harry Gordon Selfridge was the first major retailer in Britain to throw open his doors to the masses – and without him, our shops would look very different.

He was a marketing genius who coined phrases still in use well over a century later, including “the customer is always right” and the dreaded “…shopping days left to Christmas” (there’s 58 this year, if you were wondering).

But there was to be trouble ahead for this flamboyant showman, who died penniless after blowing a £65million fortune on gambling and a string of wild affairs.

In a new book, Shopping, Seduction & Mr Selfridge, Lindy Woodhead describes “a man light years ahead of his time, an accelerator of change, he deserves to be remembered as the man who put fun on to the shop floor and sex appeal into shopping”.

Selfridge was born on January 11, 1856, the youngest son of Robert Oliver Selfridge – who ran a general store in Wisconsin – and his teacher wife Lois.

He began his retail career at one of Chicago’s biggest stores, Marshall Field, where the bright young man was soon given the task of coming up with new ideas.

One was to light up the windows at night, the first time displays had been shown in the evening.

He married property developer Rosalie Buckingham after a whirlwind romance in 1890. They had three daughters Rosalie, Violette and Beatrice, and a son, also called Harry Gordon.

But at work Selfridge was getting frustrated, despite amassing a considerable personal fortune. After almost 25 years of masterminding the store’s transformation, his boss refused to rename it Marshall Field & Selfridge. So Selfridge set his sights on London and chose Oxford Street as the location for his retail masterpiece.

He had never forgotten an encounter with a shop walker during his first visit to Europe in 1888. “Is sir intending to buy something?” he was asked patronisingly. “No, I’m just looking,” replied Selfridge. The walker’s posh accent was then dropped as he snarled: “Then, ‘op it, mate.”

Selfridges would be different to anything we had seen before.

Professor Jon Stobart of the University of Northampton, whose book The History Of Shopping is out next year, says: “There were lots of department stores in London before Selfridge but they were very regimented. You went in, were greeted by a shop walker and then escorted from counter to counter.

“Selfridge exploded that. In his store customers went around on their own. They may not buy on that occasion but they’d be back – and maybe purchase something then.”

The doors opened on March 15, 1909, and more than a million people came in the first week, most just to gawp.

There were six acres of brilliantly lit shop floor full of fresh flowers, plus a library, silence room, post office, first-aid ward, bureau de change, barber’s shop, chiropodist, smoking room and ladies’ hairdressing salon, where on day one shampoo was rinsed out with soda siphons after the water failed. The store and the man behind it became famous. One columnist wrote: “Selfridge is as much one of the sights of London as Big Ben. And with his morning jacket, white vest slip, pearl tie-pin and orchid button-hole, Mister Selfridge is a mobile landmark of the metropolis.”