Harry Gordon Selfridge

by Don Boudreaux on November 3, 2013

in Civil Society, Complexity & Emergence, Growth, History

My son, Thomas, and I watched this evening a PBS documentary about the great American-British retailing pioneer Harry Gordon Selfridge (1858-1947).  Before watching this documentary I knew next-to-nothing about Selfridge.  I’d yet even to read Virginia Postrel’s fine essay on him.  If, though, PBS’s entertaining documentary on Selfridge is at all accurate, my admiration for the man is significant.  Creative entrepreneur.  Energetic innovator.  Courageous risk-taker.  A visionary who knew that to make lots of money honestly in a market economy (which he did) requires pleasing lots of consumers incessantly (which he did).

I can’t find a link to the video of this documentary.  If a reader ever finds a lawful one, please send it to me so that I can post it.

But I cannot now resist mentioning one part of the documentary – appearing at roughly the half-way point – that struck me as especially noteworthy.  Selfridge opened his department store, on Oxford Street in London, in 1909.  (That store still operates today in the same location.)  Britain back then, of course, was quite a class-conscious society, at least by today’s standards – and by the standards even of early 20th-century America.  According to the documentary, the American Selfridge was instrumental in helping to break down class barriers in Britain by welcoming all shoppers into his store on equal terms, without regard to social station or class status.  In early 20th-century England such class-blindness was unprecedented.  But it worked for Selfridge.  His store – and, of course, he personally – profited from this revolutionary policy.

Of course I have no idea what went on then in Selfridge’s mind to cause him to refuse to go along with British class distinctions in his retailing operations.  Was it only his less-class-conscious American upbringing coming through?  Was he politically correct long before being politically correct was cool?  Or did Selfridge simply calculate that his personal fortune would swell by adopting a policy of refusing to discriminate in his department store along class lines?  Perhaps it was a combination of two or all three of these (or of yet some other) factors.  I am quite confident – judging from the portrait of this entrepreneur painted over the course of the entire documentary – that a significant, if not the sole, reason for this policy was Selfridge’s (correct) calculation that non-discrimination would be great for his bottom line.

Regardless of his actual motivation (knowledge of which, obviously, was buried with him 66 years ago), I unequivocally admire Selfridge for his decision to adopt a retailing policy quite at odds with the then-prevailing British sense of class distinctions and un-mixedness.  Even if the only reason motivating Selfridge to adopt this non-discrimination policy was his itch to line his own pockets with ever-thicker wads of pound notes, the decision took courage.  Entrepreneurial courage.  He staked his own money and commercial reputation to correct what we can today, in retrospect, reasonably classify as a market imperfection.

I raise a glass to the memory of Harry Gordon Selfridge – a truly great entrepreneur who, it seems pretty clear, did more than did any Lloyd George or Bismarck or Wilson or Roosevelt or Kennedy or Johnson or Reuther or Chavez or Cuomo or Bush or Obama to improve the lot of ordinary men and women.  Far more.

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