Retail lessons for today, learned from PBS' Mr. Selfridge

April 10, 2014

By Joe Cecere

President and Chief Creative Officer of Little

It turns out that what was true 100 years ago in retail is still true today. Don't believe it? Check out Masterpiece Classic's Mr. Selfridge, which returned to PBS on Sunday, March 30 for its second season. Across eight episodes chronicling the life and growth of Selfridge's department store on Oxford Street in London, any retailer worth their salt will see the parallels to today's challenges for retailers and e-tailers alike. It's all about experience, experience, experience — the customer's and the employee's.

A customer experience innovator from the get-go, Harry Gordon Selfridge spearheaded a retail revolution by anticipating shopper needs and desires before they could even tell him that's what they wanted. Applying his formative years of experience working his way up the ladder at Marshall Field's in Chicago before striking out on his own in London, Selfridge's inventions included the first widespread use of customer delighters like the semi-annual sale, a bargain basement and the now-ubiquitous phrases, "The Customer Is Always Right" and "Only 10 shopping days until Christmas!" Selfridge knew how to appeal to his target demographic — women. Before Selfridge's debuted the first in-store restaurant, the only place women could grab a nice cuppa in the afternoon was a local hotel. No other business provided women's powder rooms!

The revolution continued, as Selfridge truly democratized the shopping experience for all. His competitors' stores were specific to social classes, a hierarchy strictly enforced in 20th century British society. Selfridge broke down barriers by welcoming customers from every walk of life, inventing the radical concept of "just browsing."

Selfridge further harnessed the power of a differentiated customer experience by leveraging public relations and special events. When the early aviator Louis Blériot became the first to fly his plane over water, Selfridge seized the day and put the plane on display in his store. It drew more than 150,000 people over four days, inspiring what the brand itself calls "the theater of retail."

But perhaps the real genius of this legendary commercial giant lay not in early advertising, marketing and PR acts, but with one of the biggest overlooked marketing assets not only then but also today: store employees. Selfridge enabled his customer revolution by turning employee relations on its head. Prior to Selfridges, other store's employees were treated no better than domestic servants. Working 12+ hour days, workers lived in sparse dorms on-site. Selfridge righted some of the immediate wrongs (allowing employees to live at home with higher salaries), while implementing a groundbreaking internal culture of customer service. Through his daily walks of the sales floor, all employees learned what Selfridges stood for and how the brand was changing the marketplace. At Selfridges, they would simply "treat the customer right." Mr. Selfridge would reinforce the "what" and the "why" of the brand experience with every employee daily, while empowering his people to determine the "how."

Today, while Selfridges department store continues to flourish despite having struggled through two world wars, a great depression, the eventual demise of its noble namesake and the sale of his enterprise, we are in the midst of another retail revolution of online and mobile e-tailing. Marketers, strategists and merchants looking for innovative retail strategy can put down the business books, break out the popcorn, and enjoy retail 101 lessons while indulging in PBS' hit show.

The lessons they'll see? First, invest in the customer experience. What shopping experiences are currently accepted as "just the way things are," but could be more convenient or delightful for a customer? Don't just listen to what customers tell you they want; think 5-10 years further, then make it a reality. Seamless experiences and omni-channel consistency are a base expectation of today's retail experience. To differentiate, you must meet those expectations and fly well beyond to earn ongoing customer attention and love.

And importantly, don't leave your employees out of the game. Listen to Mr. Selfridge! Employees are your best marketing asset — your brand's first line of defense in a world full of shopping options. Communicate your brand's purpose and strategy early and often, driving a thriving internal culture of allegiance to the end goal. Enlist and empower your employees to become your chief brand ambassadors, just as Mr. Selfridge did. Your bottom line will thank you for it.

Joe Cecere is President and Chief Creative Officer of Little, a branding and design firm whose clients include Target, Lowe's, Microsoft and Sealy.

Topics: Customer Experience , Customer Service , Employee Training

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