Selfridges, HMV and the British High Street frenzy

A few weeks ago I sat down and prepared myself for a world of luxury and decadence in the form of ITV1’s new Sunday night drama. And I wasn’t disappointed. Selfridge’s tells the whirlwind tale of Harry Selfridge who arrives in London in the 1900s ready to take on the fashion elite and change the face of shopping as they know it. There are so many interesting points to emerge from the programme, none less so than the insight it gives viewers into how the department store sparked a new era for fashion and retail that moved away from practicality and function and towards a shiny new shopping experience.

One of the early scenes in episode one shows a shop assistant behind the glove desk who is approached by Mr Selfridge and asked to empty all the gloves on the cabinet – he wants to get a feel for the product and to ‘have some fun.’ The level of customer service required in the scene shocks the girl behind the counter, in keeping with an era where people went shopping to simply make a purchase and the concept of the ‘shopping experience’ was non-existent. The girl is shortly fired for carrying out the request and Selfridge is cast out as an undesirable customer. Update the same scenario to today and it would have played out quite differently, almost in complete reversal.

The high street has come a long way since the 1900s. Customer service and visual merchandising are now welcomed with open arms, if not expected as standard and the likes of Mary Portas have ensured that we as consumers demand more, both in terms of product quality and service. Any retailer or brand worth its salt does its upmost to ensure that, from the moment the customer enters the store, and often even before entry, the experience will have them coming back for more. From personal shoppers to interactive features in changing rooms, the face of retail has had a significant and much improved lift since the time of Mr Selfridge.

With HMV and Blockbuster going into administration last week, the state of the British high street has once again been revisited and fretted over. And yet, when looking back at how far it has progressed since the time of Selfridges, it is clear that the high street is far from dead. It holds a sense of nostalgia for all while remaining an integral street at the heart of every town. One of my earliest memories of the high street involved buying a hideous pair of trouser in C&A during the mid-1990s while today, it is a haven of both indie shops and retail giants that give back so much more than shopping and fashion (which on its own is still pretty amazing). The hordes of tourists that visit the Christmas window displays at Harrods every year are testament enough to the fact that retail is still pretty exciting.


The author

Lizzie is an Associate Director in the Manchester team

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