The Fairy Tale Rise to Success of Harry Gordon Selfridge

by LisaSanderson

This is a biography of "Mile-a-Minute Harry", the famous entrepreneur who created the great London store, Selfridges.

Harry Gordon Selfridge rose from relative poverty to amass a fortune, found the famous London store Selfridges, and mix with the aristocracy. His story was a true rags-to-riches tale. The brash American's rapid rise to success inspired many ambitious entrepreneurs, especially those interested in retail.

The Story of Mr. Selfridge

Born in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1858, Harry Selfridge had a difficult childhood, because his mother was forced to raise three sons alone after his father abandoned the family.  She also had to cope with the deaths of Selfridge's two young brothers. However, Mrs. Selfridge managed to keep her spirits up and care for her only son extremely well. Courageous and determined, Mrs. Selfridge eventually became the headmistress of a high school and taught the young Harry never to fear failure.

Having come from a military background, the budding entrepreneur originally wanted to join the navy, but he failed the exams. The teenager then decided that his future lay in commerce, so he took a position as a stock boy in the great Chicago store Marshall Field. Amazingly, Selfridge became a partner very quickly, and he earned a fortune within an extremely short time.  He owed much of his success at the great store to innovative advertising slogans, such as “The customer is always right.”  His clever advertising campaigns captivated the public with their novelty.  For example, Selfridge promoted Christmas sales at the store by telling customers that there were “Only __ shopping days until Christmas.”

Harry Selfridge dreamed of owning his own store.  When he traveled to London, he noticed that Britain lacked the ground-breaking department stores that existed in the United States, so he decided to return and build his own shop.  Selfridge risked his future by building Selfridges, a huge London emporium, on the unfashionable end of Oxford Street.

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Mr Selfridge continued



Selfridge introduced the unique idea of tempting shoppers to shop for pleasure rather than necessity. He wanted customers to remain in his department store for as long as possible, so he introduced several merchandising initiatives, such as the first in-store restaurant and a rooftop garden with a skating rink. He also launched the first beauty department in his grand emporium, placing this at the entrance so that customers would be surrounded by beauty products and perfume as soon as they entered the store. He hoped to lift the spirits of customers when they walked into Selfridges.

The remarkable entrepreneur was also one of the first store-owners to use famous events and illustrious people in advertisements. For example, he displayed Louis Bleriot’s monoplane in the emporium after Bleriot completed the first Channel crossing by air in the small plane. Crowds flocked to see the plane during the four days that it was exhibited. Selfridge gave the stunning ballerina Anna Pavlova a private tour of the store, and he devoted a shop window to her. He also dedicated a window to the Ballet Russes when they visited London. Selfridge even presented Baird’s original television sets in store windows in 1925, and he advertised transmission times in newspapers and buses.

Unfortunately, Selfridge threw his success away by spending too much on women and gambling because he was upset by the deaths of his mother and his wife. He died in penury, longing for his former life as the head of Selfridges. Sadly, the old entrepreneur would stare up at his wonderful store and tell people that he created the emporium, but they didn’t believe him, because he looked like a tramp.

Selfridge’s story recently inspired the book Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge, and the television series "Mr. Selfridge". These ensure that the imposing businessman will be remembered.


Books about Selfridges

Masterpiece: Mr Selfridge - Season 4

Emmy® Award-winning actor Jeremy Piven (Entourage) reprises his role as the colorful but deeply troubled Harry Selfridge in season four of MASTERPIECE's lavish period drama, Mr....

View on Amazon

Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge

If you lived at Downton Abbey, you shopped at Selfridge’s.Harry Gordon Selfridge was a charismatic American who, in twenty-five years working at Marshall Field’s in Chicago, ros...

View on Amazon

Harry Selfridge

This is a biography of "Mile-a-Minute Harry", the famous entrepreneur who created the great London store, Selfridges.
The murder of a little boy is investigated by Maggie Brand (played by Tamsin Greig) in The Guilty, a three-part show due to start on ITV on Thursday 5 September 2013.

Harry Selfridge

Harry Selfridge
Harry Selfridge

Mr Selfridge

Updated: 06/13/2014, LisaSanderson
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


Mira on 06/07/2014

Nice story, Lisa, and well told!

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