Director of Retail Customer Experience Conversity
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Harry Gordon Selfridge: Lessons from a CX pioneer

29th Jan 2020
Director of Retail Customer Experience Conversity
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It is evident that the customer experience plays a pivotal part in the success of any retailer, even more so in the always-on, technology-driven age in which we now live. Standing out in a crowded competitive environment is tough, so the companies that will come out on top are those who are willing to be a bit more innovative in their approaches, and go that extra mile for their customers.

The vast majority of retailers have come to embrace technology in some shape or form to help build a more fluid, rewarding customer experience, whether this be something as simple as building an intuitive e-commerce platform, or something more unusual like the use of augmented reality in-store.

Despite the evident benefits of tech, it is also important not to get lost in it. Sometimes, it’s useful to go back to basics, and examine what our forebears did to pave the way to the modern customer experience we see today. There is no better example in this context than Harry Gordon Selfridge, who became one of the original pioneers of the customer experience when he opened the first Selfridges store, way back in 1909.

The genesis of the modern CX

After opening his first store on Oxford Street, Selfridge immediately set about transforming the relationship between stores and their customers, embracing experiential approaches that were unique for the time. This was evident from the beginning: he was the first person to spend $2 million on adverts for the store’s opening, highlighting the fact that enticing the customer and creating a buzz was at the forefront of his mind.


Selfridge didn’t stop there. He popularised shopping as a leisurely activity that involved browsing and trying products before buying, such as putting the perfume and make-up counters at the front of the shop. He also emphasised his experience as being open to people of all social classes, with bi-annual sales and a bargain basement bringing those on lower incomes into the fold.

There’s also evidence to suggest that he coined the age-old phrase “the customer is always right”. Whether it was Selfridge or someone else who came up with it, he did a huge amount to shift retailers towards a more customer-centric approach.

Ringing true in the modern day

Despite it being over 100 years since Selfridge adopted these techniques, the basics of what he did still ring true today. People are still people and possess the same desires, needs and sense of curiosity. Therefore, it is significant that businesses appeal to customers’ human nature in very much the same manner. As Selfridge said, "people will sit up and take notice of you if you sit up and take notice of what makes them sit up and take notice."

With this in mind, incorporating new technology should always be driven by this need to appeal to human desires, rather than rushed in as a knee-jerk reaction to market pressures or competition.

Tools such as intelligent guided selling (IGS) have a great deal of potential in this respect. This technology works by using data to dig deeper into the customer mindset either in-store or online, helping retailers to better understand the needs of the modern customer, and provide the engaging, personalised experience that they appreciate. AI and AR also hold similar promise in this area, as they can provide that extra layer of excitement, while still giving retailers useful insights into customer behaviour.

Getting the best of both worlds

Technology within retail businesses is undeniably powerful, and definitely has a leading role to play in the future of the customer experience.

However, this success can only come if retailers maintain a comprehensive understanding of what makes customers tick on a human level. This means working out how to pique your customers’ interest, maintain it, and then use this knowledge to complete a sale. Technology can then be used to support and augment this process. In effect, it all boils down to one of Selfridge’s other statements: “Get the confidence of the public and you will have no difficulty in getting their patronage.”

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