Last night, PBS launched the latest in their series of period dramas, starring Jeremy Piven as the American-born retailing entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge. He of the eponymously named department store chain in the UK, Selfridge upended British shopping in the early twentieth century, transforming it from a chore to a thrilling recreational experience.
Those of us here at The Century Foundation have more than an idle interest in following the story of Mr. Selfridge. Although at TCF, we restock our shelves constantly with progressive solutions, rather than consumer goods, we also are a creation of another early twentieth century retailing genius, Edward Filene. Yes, he of the basement.
The early scenes of the PBS show suggest that behind gleaming marble counters of exotic goods customers didn’t know were essential until they laid eyes on them, there is much intrigue, ambition, and desire. Not only does it help PBS underwriters sell soap, it make sense coming from Selfridge, who wrote a book called The Romance of Commerce.
The Romance of Commerce describes what Selfridge and Filene had in common, and where they parted company. Both were scrappy entrepreneurs who had a vision for retailing and a flair for PR. Both were masters of marketing—Selfridge is credited with coining the phrases “Only ___ days until Christmas” and “The customer is always right,” while Filene deployed the talents of Edward Bernays, the so-called father of public relations, to persuade the public to action. Both Wilsonians, Bernays and Filene thought the power of persuasion was the grease of democracy.
Where Selfridge and Filene diverged was in the arena of their innovation. Filene relentlessly used his department store as a laboratory for employee empowerment. While Selfridge put the customer at the center of romantic adventure, Filene took another tack—he thought well-treated employees with a stake in a store’s fortunes were the best advertisement.
Selfridge made shopping a contact sport—for the first time in the UK, customers could examine the merchandise and spend the entire day shopping. His original Oxford Street store had ten acres of merchandise, eleven restaurants, and two exhibition halls—it was shopping as holiday.
Filene, on the other hand, experimented with labor-management cooperation, workplace democracy, the earliest company labor union, employee ownership schemes, credit unions, and paid sick days, and pioneered a system of transparent pricing (unheard of at the time) for ready-made quality women’s apparel and a scheduled series of price markdowns—the bargain basement concept by which he is most remembered today.
The PBS series promises Jeremy Piven’s character will have his hands full with various business and romantic liaisons; Filene was married to his work. He initiated profit-sharing, health clinics, paid vacations, insurance, minimum wages for female employees, and a five-day, forty-hour work week. Rather than Selfridge’s elevation of the customer at all costs, Filene was known to say that “Good social policies are the surest way for big and continuous profits.”
Filene was disappointed when his employees (and fellow owners) lacked enthusiasm for workers owning a piece of the company. This led to a new phase in his life. Freed of management responsibilities at Filene’s, he eventually became the leading business advocate in support of the New Deal and of FDR’s presidency. A lifelong Republican, Filene established TCF to undertake long form social science research on the problems of democracy and prosperity. A source of ideas that ranged from the brilliant to the highly unconventional, he was notably not the least bit nostalgic about last year’s solution to last year’s problem. His life will probably never be the grist for a public television soap opera, but the ideas he helped underwrite are far more enduring.