If I were to give a couple of good reasons to start watching a new TV series – Mr Selfridge, there would be three supreme arguments. You will watch it not so much for the actors’ performance, but more for the costumes of the period: the Edwardian dresses, with deep cleavages and chest burdened by lace and sparkling breastpins, for the delicate umbrellas, turquoise, blood-red, or emerald-green velvets, for the coquette gestures and refinement of women, or for those Belle Époque hats, decorated with feathers, bows, and ribbons.
You will remember the background of that particular period (the beginning of the XX century, the first flights, and automobiles, the movements of the suffragettes), but more than this: you will have your heart filled with the nostalgia of the old days when commerce was not impersonal and done online.
You will less interested by the narrative line of social ascension and ambition of some characters, as you will receive an important lesson of retail history: how you attract customers upon the opening hour of a shop, how to decorate a shop window or accessory aisle, how to train the personnel in charge with the sales, how to invent a perfumes aisle, how to change the shopping habits of men and women of the post-Victorian era, how to transform shopping in a strong emotion, in experience, and even in a show.
“Mr. Selfridge”, the fascinating TV series I recently discovered, is actually the story of the launch of the famous store with the same name in London, back in 1909, and the story of the man behind it.
Jeremy Piven is the actor playing the role of Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American businessman who revolutionized the way shopping was made. Because of this man, shopping became a pleasant activity one enjoys in the spare time, without being just a practical necessity.
These days, it would be hard to imagine how it would be to simply walk into a store and know exactly what we are going to buy, without feeling the need to look for some odds and ends, without trying on completely useless items. Of course, we can have some sort of “idea” about what we want – a wedding dress, a pair of shoes, a pair of gloves – but before Selfridge & Co, shopping was made in an entirely different registry and manner. In the case of wealthy families – nobles, industrialists – when they needed clothes, the gents were visiting their tailor while the ladies called in the tailor and seamstress, and the rest (accessories, ribbons, underwear, perfumes, creams, shoes) were shipped straight at their homes. The others used to shop in small family-owned stores: nothing was displayed in window shops or on the counter, one would have to ask for a certain item in order to be seen.
After a period in which he became rich in Chicago, as a business partner of Marshal Fields (the first department store of the world that introduced the personal shopper service and used elevators for the first time), in 1908 Harry Selfridge ends up in London, where he discovers the unpleasant and disappointing face of shopping: distant sellers, cold and apparently deserted shops, which were dark and crowded, merchandise that was never on display and inaccessible to customers, the absence of toilets or those mere “powder rooms”, and shop windows that had a chaotic mix of products. Back in those days, stores even had a special employee whose title was “floorwalker”. His particular responsibility was to throw out those customers that just looked and weren’t interested in buying anything.
Harry decides to change the entire situation and, a year later, Selfridge’s opens on Oxford Street, in an opulent manner. The store opened its doors by rolling out a red carpet, with publicity and a loud band, inviting people in a space that was generous, airy, and lightened, in a remarkable building and with shop windows that recreate paintings, landscapes, and everyday life scenes.
In comparison with the competition, who hides accessories and perfumes in cabinets and drawers, Harry trains his personnel to display the merchandise on the countertop, how to invite clients to touch silk scarves and fur collars, how to try on the perfumes, gloves, and hats. He also brings in air conditioning, elevators, and training programs for employees. To attract even more customers, he brings in his shop famous people – the first one is French aviator Louis Bleriot and Harry even installs, in the middle of the shop, the real monoplane used by Bleriot to pass the English Channel – inventing, this way, the so-called “In-Store Appearances”. For Harry Selfridge, the shop is a theater, whose curtains are raised every morning at 9 sharp, and the sellers and shop supervisors are masters of seduction.
Because I previously mentioned the background, Selfridge’s ideas wouldn’t have been so popular in a different period. The beginning of the XX century was marked by the appearance of the first movements of feminine emancipation. These were the years in which women obtained the freedom to walk and display themselves publicly, without the mandatory accompaniment of a masculine member of the family. Harry uses this new found freedom, creating an elegant environment for the ladies, where they feel safe and have each and every caprice satisfied. “Why not spend the day at Selfridge’s?”, was, back in those days, one of the most successful marketing campaigns, directed toward shoppers, making Emile Zola name these shops “shopping cathedrals”.
One of Selfridge’s revolutionary ideas was the introduction of toilets and hygiene dedicated spaces for the public. Until 1909, no store in London offered such facilities. Out of the desire to lure into Selfridge’s women from the suburbs and country towns as well, Harry’s architects create luxurious bathrooms, similar to what you can find in the largest hotels, also adding a coffee shop and restaurant to the store, the Palm Court.
Another ingenious strategy, which literally changed the retail space, was the creation of a cosmetic and beauty section, at the ground floor of the store. Until then, cosmetics for women were sold inside old pharmacies, never in the sight of everybody, as they were connected with the intimacy of the boudoir. If perfumes and powders were allowed and accepted as part of a daily beauty ritual, lipsticks and blushes were seen as compromising, connected to women with easy virtues (such a shop sector was the equivalent of opening a sex shop in the middle of the Cocor store these days).
Obviously, the supreme purpose of Harry Selfridge was to attract customers in the shop and keep them there for as long as it was possible. For this. Selfridge adds in a library, a reading and recreational room, creates special receptions for German, French, American and “colonial” customers, open an infirmary, and even a “silent room” – a room with generous armchairs and dim lights. So you can understand how ambitious and inventive this man was, Harry Selfridge obtains from the city hall number “1” as the shop’s phone number so that anyone using this phone number to be easily connected to a Selfridge’s operator.
„Shopping, Seduction & Mr. Selfridge”, the book written by Lindy Woodhead was, partially, the base of this TV series. From the found reviews, the book seems interesting, but much less tolerant with the main character than the series is – Piven is all but a smile, displaying perfect teeth, boasting of vitality and charm, with a convincing speech, moving with symmetric and theatrical gestures, but also with moments of weakness and cute confusion when having to face the charms of beautiful women. With the exception of the Selfridge family and several key-characters, the rest are the invention of the scriptwriter, Andrew Davies.
I don’t want to make any reveals about the rest of the characters or about the narrative lines that intersect (from this point of view and not only, Mr. Selfridge is rather similar to Downtown Abbey; it creates conversation subjects from the hard-fisted rivalries among the shop’s salesgirls, shows the relationships between social classes, the reactions of some characters put in front of social progress). But I will tell you that Mr. Selfridge is a real visual show, in which the costumes and background décor are stronger than the outline of secondary characters: they are not just part of the backdrop, as you will certainly follow them closely, regardless if it is about a bottle of perfume or a certain dress.
Beyond the book and film (I hardly keep myself from watching all the episodes in one go), as I contemplate today’s retail landscape, I realize just how many of those strategies are still used, how beautiful the “theater” of windows and arrangements in a store work (one of Piven’s first lines made me think about the advertising spots and marketing efforts of today’s largest department stores: „Not too tidy in here; pile ’em up! I want Treasure Island in here, Aladdin’s cave there… glamour, style, razzmatazz!”)… And before seeing another episode, I cannot help wondering what Selfridge would change or invent if he would still be alive today.