AS the January sales wear on urging us to grab our discounts before they end, we should spare a thought for Harry Gordon Selfridge, born 149 years ago today.
It is only fitting that the week of Selfridge’s birthday has been marked by the launch of two television series celebrating the rise and rise of his adopted brain-child – consumer culture – in the form of ITV’s Mr Selfridge and BBC’s The Paradise (an adaptation of Emile Zola’s 1883 novel Au Bonheur des Dames).
I first came across Selfridge when researching The Fame Formula, exploring the rise of modern PR on the East Coast of industrialist America.
Although he brushed shoulders with the likes of Harry Reichenbach, Selfridge was the first person with the vision and the chutzpah to craft a culture around retail. Selfridge established shopping as an experience, an activity in itself rather than a means to an end.
Where the likes of Andrew Carnegie were able to identify problems in retail, Selfridge came up with innovative solutions, and inspired love and intrigue for his brand in a way in which no other had before.
Selfridge concocted swathes of spectacular creative stunts and used a plethora promotional mechanics to draw in the crowd. Although every generation believes itself to be the inventor of the wheel when it comes to guerrilla publicity, Selfridge did it first.
Selfridge understood the importance of engaging in modernity, embracing technological and social change, and like Baudelaire across the Channel a century before, realised the strength of the powerhouse that is the crowd. He nurtured his personal relationships with everyone from regency to rabble adorning the store front for coronations and jubilees and handing out turkeys to bus drivers at Christmas. He gained endorsement from the celebrities of the day – mixing with stars from George Formby to the Dolly Sisters – and wined and dined the press, developing a thick archive of clippings along the way.
Under Selfridge, artists were given free range and the pioneering technology of the day was given a platform – from the use of modest new printing technologies in the group’s advertising, to the display of Blériot’s Channel-crossing plane and Baird’s television. The public would flock to the store in their thousands to witness the theatrics first hand. The word-of-mouth stories that Selfridge generated spread worldwide, a near-miraculous feat in those days. More than anyone of his time, Selfridge understood the power of memes.
The spirit of the stuntsman remained with the store for some time, and I had the pleasure of working with the previous management developing three glorious campaigns for them which generated global stories. For the Body Craze season in 2003, we used the same hooks that held up Blériot’s plane to suspend S&M artist John Kamikaze from the ceiling. On another, we turned the store into a piece of artwork for Tunick’s Be Consumed, bringing in 500 volunteers to pose naked for a mass photograph.
This month, Selfridges have made another attempt at creating an aesthetic experience for the customer by launching the Silence Room, encouraging shoppers to take time out from the hustle and bustle of the experience.
Unfortunately, it seems that mass consumption has reached a point of satiation and that the kind of creative energy that gave rise to the modern retail experience has been lost. Sales and discounts are ubiquitous – not to mention the white noise of freebies that infiltrates the daily commute. Saturation of information has rendered retailers’ offerings meaningless, and just as Oxford Street was run-down in the days preceding Selfridge, so it is today.
Retail is in a state of stagnation, its sole driver anchored in ‘bargain’ prices. Although on one level global recession inspires frugality, bargain hunting in itself is not enough to sustain a consumer base.
Supermarkets have been blighted by pricing scandals and people are losing faith in the giants who don’t reach out to them. Retail is filled with bean counters who are so obsessed with numbers, and who have forgotten where the numbers come from in the first place.
The crowd is the foundation stone of retail business, and unless retailers are able to build a relationship with the public, their businesses will crumble.
Selfridge transformed retail exchange from piles of dust-covered goods hidden under countertops to an aesthetic experience to be enjoyed by everybody. Today, there are a few retailers who manage to embody this ideal, though the Apple shops spring immediately to mind as they are areas in which customers are able to interact and play with goods as well as receive advice and buy them.
There is a reason why Debenhams has been failing to attract customers despite its huge price cuts, and it is precisely due to their inability to communicate with the crowd. We can only hope that they are able to embody some of the soul of Selfridge in time for his 150th anniversary next year.