It is more than a little strange seeing Entourage’s caustic Hollywood agent, Ari Gold suddenly transported into a genteel British period drama.

But once you get beyond that shock, the new PBS mini-series, Mr.Selfridge provides the student of small business with a crash course on the origins of retail innovation.

For anyone who hasn’t had a chance to catch the show, the story follows the journey of Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American entrepreneur who traveled across the pond to found the iconic London department store, Selfridges in 1909. The show has proved popular both sides of the Atlantic and has even spawned a twitter handle, @mrselfridge which dispenses wisdom from the great man himself. And you can be sure that this is wisdom is worth listening to. After all, Harry Gordon Selfridge is (allegedly) the original man behind the phrase, ‘the customer is always right’.

We take a look at some of the tweets and see what lessons there are for the modern retailer.

Don’t Accept the Status Quo

Harry Gordon Selfridge entered a retail landscape that is hardly recognizable to the modern consumer.  The rich just didn’t go to shops – they had tailors visit them at home.  And if people were to visit a shop they would not go to browse. They would go in, ask for the specific item they needed, negotiate a price and leave. The idea of window shopping was anathema to the sensibilities of the day.

Harry completely changed how this business was done.  He put all his wares out on display, fundamentally changing the dynamic of shopping from one of ‘need’ to one of ‘want’. Shoppers were suddenly able to browse, be inspired and buy things they never even knew existed.

What we can learn: Don’t be afraid to take risks. Be willing to challenge the accepted way of doing something. Innovation is everything.

Trust, Empower, and Reward Your Staff

Harry Gordon Selfridge placed an emphasis on employee satisfaction that was unprecedented at the time.

By offering higher than average wages, genuine opportunities for advancement, and benefits beyond the accepted norm at the time, he was able to attract high-quality staff and keep them for longer.

What’s more he asked his staff to feel part of something bigger than just a company. He asked that his staff see the company and their co-workers as an extended family.  He ensured that victories for the company translated into rewards and congratulations for the staff. He gave them a sense of ‘ownership’ and Selfridges became known as the home of excellent customer service as a result.

What we can learn:  When it comes to staffing, it’s not enough to simply train someone on the functional elements of their role.  Employees have to feel that they are a meaningful part of the company – that means good pay, chances for promotion, and rewards for excellence to start with.  Moreover, it means selling them on your vision the same way you sell your customers.

See Opportunity in Crisis

After the outbreak of the First World War, Harry Selfridge faced a potentially huge disruption of his business.  His workforce was vanishing to fight at the front and his consumers were suddenly scared to spend.  He responded by leading the charge to offer perceived ‘men’s roles’ to women. At Selfridges, women cleaned windows, drove delivery vans, operated lifts, formed a fire brigade – and even stoked the store’s boilers. He also organized patriotic shows and simplified his product line to encourage patrons to see his store as supportive of the war effort.  Selfridge is said to have also coined the phrase, ‘Business as usual’ at this time.

What we can learn:  Next time you’re freaking out about things going wrong in your neighborhood, remember this – at least your staff aren’t leaving en masse to fight a World War.  In crisis there’s always an opportunity – so, find the right staff, empower them with responsibility, and you’ll be able to turn to them in times of need.

‘Inspiration as Marketing’

Selfridge understood that creating a desire to purchase is about providing inspiration. This process started with putting wares on display but it carried over to everything he did.

Selfridges became famous (and it still is today) for its lavish window displays, creating buzz and excitement about the latest trends.  Early on, the store struggled to attract enough customers to pay the bills.  Harry Selfridge decided to exhibit Louis Blériot’s monoplane (the first to cross the Channel) as a way of getting in the news and pulling in the public.

What we can learn: The art of sales isn’t just about fulfilling a need, it’s about creating that need in the first place.  Design your store to put people in the right frame of mind and your job is 99% percent done.

I’ll leave you with this final bombshell:

Selfridges was also one of the first stores in the United Kingdom to offer a fine dining establishment, as Selfridge wanted customers to feel they could spend a prolonged period inside.  So, if you think about it, without Selfridge there would be no cafes in IKEA and you would probably never have had Swedish meatballs.  Which would be a shame.

Paul Nugent

Paul Nugent

Paul Nugent is a small business advocate who uses his background in the startup space, along with his POS system expertise, to allow small business owners to make informed decisions within their specific budgets.