Since it first opened in 1909, Selfridges has always been about more than shopping. Time Out joins the staff and goes behind the scenes of the retail institution that sells the world‘s most expensive sandwich, has Europe‘s busiest doors and formerly had a rifle range on the roof
I’ve just given an unsuspecting Danish tourist Aunt Sally cheeks, sold pink lip-gloss to a woman who wanted orange and am well on my way to hitting my £100 sales target. Armed with just a brush and blusher and a bright yellow name badge, I’m the latest recruit in Europe’s biggest beauty hall. It’s not only scary, it’s the hardest work I’ve done in years.
I have secured myself a temporary job (okay, half a day) at my favourite department store to find out what goes on behind the scenes at this London icon. Running to more than a million square feet, from the sub-sub-basement (rumoured to house an abandoned tube station) to the roof that once held an elaborate tea garden and mini-golf range, this is a shop that has plenty of stories to tell.
Built in 1909, Selfridges was the vision of US businessman Gordon Selfridge, a flamboyant showman who wanted his store to be as much about entertainment as retail. ‘A department store should be a social centre, not merely a place for shopping,’ he said when Selfridges opened. ‘It should be a meeting place for friends, for women especially, a place where they can show themselves and entertain.’
And it was, hosting beauty pageants and dancing shows, and exhibiting the Blériot XI after it completed the first cross-Channel flight in 1909. When Louis Blériot made his historic flight from France, Selfridge happened to be holidaying in Dover. He promptly hired the plane for four days and rushed it back to London to display in the store. It was a sensation and 150,000 people passed by it. ‘I made the store the third biggest attraction in London,’ Selfridge boasted later, conceding only to Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. In 1925, Selfridges hosted John Logie Baird’s first public demonstration of television. ‘It is not the making of money that is the chief motive with me,’ Selfridge was fond of saying, ‘it is the great game of the thing.’
Now, for the first time since he left the business in 1940, Selfridges is a family affair again. In 2003 Irish-Canadian billionaire W Galen Weston bought the firm for more than £600 million, adding it to a portfolio that includes Canadian department store chain Holt Renfrew, Irish department store Brown Thomas and a Canadian supermarket chain. Although Galen holds the purse strings, it’s his daughter Alannah who runs the show.
The exterior of Selfridges with the 'Queen of Time'
Naturally eyebrows were raised when daddy’s girl got the plum job of creative director, but she has more than proved her credentials. Retail is practically in her DNA: her first memory is getting lost in the china department of Brown Thomas. She works closely with the 45-strong visual merchandising (VM) and 3D team on everything, from the overall look of the store down to the typography on the bags – and they have nothing but genuine praise for her. ‘She is the voice of clarity: a very cohesive presence,’ says the team’s head, Erin Thompson. Alannah even does a regular stint on the in-store information desk to keep her hand in (the most frequently asked question, incidentally, is ‘where are the ladies’ loos?’).
The store’s 27 shop windows are its chief asset in selling itself. Passed by thousands of people on foot, 250 cabs and a continuous wall of buses every day, they have the potential to create a huge impact. ‘The windows are massively important: 20 per cent of business-winning trade is from the windows,’ says Nathan Hicks, VM fashion manager. When Alannah, who shares a love of art with her father, came on board, she approached artists to design the windows; when Alison Jackson put her trademark Tony Blair and David Beckham lookalikes in a window, it brought traffic to a standstill. The police finally insisted they stop the project because it was clogging up Oxford Street.
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