Harry Selfridge: Experiential marketing pioneer?

September 26, 2019

Today we’re looking back at one of history’s marketing greats. Harry Selfridge was a retail magnate who moved from Chicago to London and opened his ground-breaking department store in 1909. He once said: “The whole art of merchandising consists of appealing to the imagination.” Are these the words of an experiential marketing pioneer? Let’s take a look at the evidence.

1. Shopping as an experience.

Selfridge’s vision of the future of shopping was a pleasurable experience to be savoured. He furnished his department store with every convenience, including salons, restaurants, a library, atmospheric lighting and even a ‘silence room’ where weary patrons could take time away from the bustle.

2. The power of touch.

Selfridge was one of the first retailers to let customers handle merchandise while shopping—until then, customers had to ask sales staff to take something out for them. The risk of theft increased, but Selfridge felt it was worth it.

3. Promotional events.

Selfridge was a master publicist, staging events and showcasing technologies at his store to drum up custom and conversation. In 1912 the tango was demonstrated in the UK for the first time on the store’s rooftop terrace. After Louis Blériot made the first cross-Channel flight in 1909, Selfridge arranged to display his monoplane in the store, attracting thousands of visitors.

4. Windows to the soul.

Selfridge employed a former co-worker, American Edward Goldsman, to manage his window displays. Before Selfridges, London windows mostly displayed stacks of packaged products. By contrast, the window displays at Selfridges evoked an entire brand experience. The store boasted 21 plate glass windows, and each of these blank canvases would be turned into a masterpiece by Goldsman and his team.

The verdict.

It’s pretty convincing. One hundred years ago Selfridge embraced a philosophy and pioneered a range of innovations that today are hallmarks of experiential marketing. Now, it shouldn’t be too hard to convince my boss that a day of ‘fact finding’ at the London store is in order…

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