The fascinating stories behind London’s three biggest and quintessentially British department stores

An external view of Selfridges, LondonWhether you’re visiting London for the first time or you live here and spend every day in the city, when it’s time to shop, your mind will no doubt head to one of the well known department stores we have.

There’s a retail option whatever your needs, starting right at the small, independent boutique level, but the department stores are iconic. They’re British. They’re what makes London shopping as attractive and as popular as it is.

And whilst the whole shopping scene in London has a fantastically fascinating background, the stories behind three of the city’s most famous departments stores – Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty – are particularly wonderful, and so we had to share!

Harrods: Europe’s largest department store

Arguably the most notable shop in the country, and one of the most notable in the world, the truly iconic Harrods department store occupies over 1.1 million square feet, making it the biggest store of its kind anywhere in Europe.

First opening its doors in 1849, its roots can actually be traced back another 25 years to 1824, when Charles Henry Harrod launched his first business in Southwark, which offered a variety of clothes and fabric-related services.

Fast forward to 1832 and Charles Harrod had moved to open a greengrocers, and two years later had moved to the East End to establish a wholesale grocery business. Focusing on importing, which when coupled with his original focus on speciality cloth, helped him to make a name for himself as a quality foreign goods importer.

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Staying at this site for over a decade, with the Great Exhibition coming to Hyde Park in 1851, he moved to a small retail space nearby in 1849 – and it’s from here where the Harrods we know and love today grew from.

With Charles’s son coming into the business upon his retirement, by 1880 Harrods had acquired the nearby buildings, employed over 100 people and was firmly established as a thriving retail destination.

Not all happy times, however, in 1883 the store was almost entirely damaged by fire and had to practically be rebuilt from the ground up. Happening at the start of December, showcasing the roots of Harrods’ focus on the customer, they unbelievably managed to still fulfil every customer order for Christmas of that year.

Having a huge array of famous customers during its real emerging years – think Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin and Noel Coward (all of whom were some of the first to receive credit at the store) – the company floated on the stock market in 1889. A pivotal point in the company’s history, it’s potentially overshadowed by another major event that happened nearly a decade later – the introduction of the country’s first escalator (which was so traumatic, shoppers were offered brandy once they reached the top).

Being purchased by House of Fraser in 1959, and then spearheaded by Mohamed Al-Fayed on his acquisition of House of Fraser in 1985, it changed hands once again in 2010, but from the outside looking in, it’s hard to tell a difference – it’s still one of the most loved and memorable shopping destinations in London.

Selfridges: an American dream in the UK

Relatively young in comparison to Harrods, Selfridges didn’t launch until 1908 – but when it did, it did so with a bang.

Founded by Henry Gordon Selfridge, the American – who had built up a successful string of properties and retail businesses – was in London on holiday with his wife in 1906. Falling in love with the city, he commented how there was a distinct lack of stores similar to those seen both in his home country and in the large French cities.

Not one to ponder too much, two years later he was ready to open Selfridges to the public of London.

Set out to be anything but a ‘normal’ shopping experience, he was focused on making the store a truly inviting one; one where people wanted to go and spend time. Clearly this meant having the right products, but Selfridge also relied heavily on attracting wider audiences, often holding educational events or partnering with scientific institutions.

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Known to have coined the phrase “the customer is always right”, Selfridge emblazoned it across the store’s marketing, which he had taken inspiration from his prior years in the States where advertising was used at much greater levels than in the UK.

Completely dominating the London scene and drawing people in regularly, Selfridge was keen to take the positives from the US retail experience, and urged his staff to assist customers – not sell to them.

And focusing on making it as easy as possible for people to engage with the store (and truly understand the press and their love for interesting stories), Selfridge managed to secure the phone number ‘1’ in London, and even proposed that nearby Bond Street tube station should be renamed as ‘Selfridge’s’ (although the decision to progress this was quashed).

Going from strength-to-strength over the years, whilst the Oxford Street store is undoubtedly the company’s flagship one, stores in Manchester and Birmingham – both of which have proven to be successful – have shown just how in-demand the brand and its approach still is today.

Liberty: offering something unique for over 140 years

Upon walking through the doors of Liberty, it doesn’t take long to make you realise that you can sample something unique; truly different to what you can find elsewhere in London. And this has been the theme since the store opened in 1875.

Founded by Arthur Lasenby Liberty with a £2,000 loan from his father-in-law, Liberty started out as half of the retail shop at 218a Regent Street. Wanting to be successful but having no real understanding of the levels of stardom that were ahead, in less than two years the loan was repaid and the store had doubled in size.

Growing almost year-on-year, by 1885 numbers 142–144 Regent Street had been acquired and the store had established itself as a purveyor of luxury and premium goods, many of which were imported from destinations as far away as Japan.

In a move that was decades ahead of what Selfridge’s were doing, in November of the same year, 42 villagers from India were brought over to be a ‘living village of Indian artisans’. Having a big focus on Indian silk, the unique approach to marketing attracted both immense publicity and increased sales.

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Having a say in many trends over the years, the most notable of these has to be art nouveau. Placing a huge focus on talented designers, their support for art nouveau designers of the time was key to the movement being a success – in fact, in Italy, the designs that fell under this moniker were often called Stile Liberty (“Liberty style”).

With the store’s external facades now synonymous with the brand in London, it’s often surprising to hear that they were originally chosen to hide expansion renovations, but were kept as they complemented the country’s love for Tudor Revival during the 1920s.

Continuing to thrive during the subsequent years, come 1955 and we started to see Liberty opening several regional stores in other UK cities, including Manchester, York and Bath.

As with Harrods and Selfridges, Liberty has changed hands a number of times over the years, but its focus is still clear – truly high quality products from right across the globe that allow you to have something genuinely unique in your home.

Enjoying the iconic department stores of London

London has one of the best retail shopping experiences anywhere in the world, and this is undoubtedly supported by the many brilliant department stores the city has.

With Harrods, Selfridges and Liberty all prime examples of what’s on offer, the history of these quintessentially British department stores is as fascinating to us as the in-store experience today is.

Perhaps we’re a little biased given our love of the traditional side of London (we’re 110 years old ourselves!), but when you have millions of people enjoying the stores each year, it puts us in very good company!

Image courtesy of Martin Addison