Mar. 16th, 2015

Selfridges & Harrods: How Two Iconic Department Stores Revolutionized the Shopping Experience

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Photo Credit: Harrods

Anyone with a penchant for the finer things knows of Harrods and Selfridges. Although established 75 years apart, their individual roads to retail royalty have no doubt intersected. Each founding father set out to change the consumer’s definition of shopping, and neither dared shy away from any opportunity to get the public’s undivided attention.

With quality always at the forefront—in terms of both product and experience—each luxury retailer has brought exciting firsts to the industry. Their legendary rivalry is very well known around London, as they continue to attract the masses two miles from one another in Knightsbridge and Westminster.

harrods
Photo Credit: Harrods

Harrods is currently one of the most popular London tourist destinations, which started as a Stepney grocery store opened by Englishman Charles Henry Harrod. In 1849 he moved his shop to Brompton Road in Knightsbridge and saw the popularity for higher-end goods begin to soar within two years. Richard Burbridge took over come 1894 and by 1898, Harrods had introduced its guests to England’s first-moving staircase, constructed using woven leather and mahogany handrails. To ease the nerves of riders on this primitive escalator, sips of brandy were handed out at the top.

harrods
Photo Credit: Harrods

The iconic Harrods building we know today, brightly beaming with more than 12,000 light bulbs, went up between 1901 and 1905 by Burbridge and featured 91 departments. Presently, 15 million shoppers per year peruse the location’s seven floors, covering five acres of ground over one million square feet of space.

selfridges
Photo Credit: Selfridges

After finding success working in department stores around Chicago, Harry Gordon Selfridge—known by his colleagues for his tireless enthusiasm and innovation—moved to London to take on a new retail venture. He opened his own shopping destination on Oxford Street in striking neoclassical style. Drawing on his instinctive understanding of the importance of publicity and effective advertising, Selfridges’ grand opening in 1909 was met with so much excitement and chaos it took 30 police officers to tame the crowds impatiently waiting outside.

selfridges
Photo Credit: Selfridges

Just a few months later when Louis Blériot became the first pilot to fly from France over the English Channel, Harry Selfridge saw yet another chance to entice customers through this epic event. For four days, Blériot’s plane was on display, luring in more than 150,000 people and solidifying Harry Selfridges’ notion that “A department store should be a social center, not merely a place for shopping.” He was so enthusiastic about his company, he was known for saying such phrases as, “I am prepared to sell anything, from an aeroplane to a cigar,” “There’s no fun like work,” and rumored to have coined the motto of the service industry, “The customer is always right.”

harrods
Photo Credit: Harrods

Where these two pioneers crossed paths was in 1917, when Harry Selfridge (who at this point called himself Gordon after settling in the UK), felt so sure about the future success of his business that he placed a wager with Harrods’ Burbridge. He bet that within the next 10 years, Selfridges would exceed Harrods’ annual returns. Unfortunately, Selfridge was not able to even match Harrod’s profits by 1927, and in acceptance of his loss, sent a miniature version of the Knightsbridge store to Burbridge, which is on display to this day in the Harrods Bank.

selfridges
Photo Credit: Selfridges

Regardless of this minor defeat and their respective humble beginnings, each has found a way to reach an audience of luxury lovers and fascinate them with revolutionary concepts enveloped in opulence. With recent combined revenues of over £2 billion, it would seem a little friendly competition brings out the best in both brands.