Harry Gordon Selfridge was always right – or was he?
Can you stand to read more whining about how much snow we've had? Me neither. Let's talk about customers.
"The customer is always right."
How many times have we heard that? You probably say it more times than you can count in your own business.
But did you know that the words are attributed to an American entrepreneur who uttered – or borrowed – them more than a century ago? In fact, in building his business into a landmark that continues today, he introduced many of the concepts we take for granted in the retail experience – like being able to touch the goods, mid-season sales, short-term price drops (remember K-mart's "blue light specials"?), putting luxury goods like perfume at the front of the store, creating store brands and, most famously, using gorgeous display windows to draw people in.
The store is Selfridges and Co., which has been a fixture on London's Oxford Street since 1909.
Harry Gordon Selfridge moved beyond providing customer service by demanding that his eponymous department store deliver a total customer experience – one they would want to repeat again and again.
The book he wrote in 1918 is even titled "The Romance of Commerce," and it's still in print. Selfridge made shopping into entertainment.
I thank this awful midstate winter for my discovery of Harry. Exhausted from the snowstorms that ushered in February, I indulged in some binge video-watching two weekends ago. British television's ITV made a series loosely based on Selfridge's life that was shown on public television here last year, so maybe you saw it. It's not the best period drama to come from abroad, but the attention to detail in costumes, sets and Selfridge's principles of salesmanship are spot on.
So, me being me, I watched the series, then I hit the Internet.
It's no surprise that the idea shopping could be fun came from America. We still love our stuff.
Selfridge got his retail education working at Marshall Field's in Chicago, a city that a century ago was considered cutting edge in a number of areas, from distribution, mass transit and public health to architecture, education and science. That mood of energetic innovation carried over to the commercial side of life. Everything in Chicago tended to be big, new, experimental and brash.
In one particular episode, the TV series illustrates well the tension we see in retail today: What is value? Do customers still want that total experience, the feeling that shopping can be an adventure and a validation of themselves, or do they just want to save a buck? The question is debated in the series when F.W. Woolworth comes to London.
What's your approach? Should customers be wowed when they walk into your establishment, or should they just be thrilled that your prices are better than your competitors? Is it possible to do both?
The week ahead
If you have an interest in international commerce, have we got stats for you! Reporter Jason Scott will show you where Pennsylvania exports have been going and identify the largest growth areas.
Meanwhile, reporter Heather Stauffer will provide some insights on where the latest delay in Obamacare mandates might leave you.
This week's Inside Business focus is health care, with lists on private physician groups and health-system physician groups.
The weather this week is supposed to be a big improvement, so check out these networking opportunities.
And don't forget Monday is a federal holiday. Many banks, schools and government offices are closed for Presidents Day, as is the Business Journal.
A last word about the snow this winter: I wish I had one of these! And isn't Central Pennsylvania beautiful after a snowfall?