(800) 516-2921

Modern Retail Was Defined in 1887 on Franklin St. in Chicago, IL

the start of modern retail Selfridge's

In the late 1700s, the industrial revolution started to take shape, influencing advancements in transportation, science, mass production, and the platform that gave rise to modern-day technology.

In 1887 on the corner of Franklin Street between Quincy and Adams in Chicago, IL, the Marshall Field’s Wholesale store opened its doors. This moment defined all aspects of modern-day retail, eCommerce, distribution, CRM, ERP, POS, etc. Shipping lines were railroads, same-day delivery was a reality, and the people behind the counters knew their customers in ways that SaaS platforms could only dream about.

portrait of Harry-Selfridge
Portrait of Harry Selfridge

That same year, Harry Selfridge, one of the most influential minds of the modern era started at Marshall Field’s Wholesale. 

Harry Selfridge would go on to coin the following phrases: 

  • The customer is always right
  • Only [so many] Shopping Days Until Christmas

Why is The Customer Always Right?

What is so significant about the notion of “the customer is always right”? Why was this so critical to the growth of Marshall Field’s and Co. as well as Selfridges? How did this expression lead to such a transformative retail innovation? Are retailers even paying attention to this today? As retailers, what can we do to get our software and hardware infrastructure to behave offline and online in the same way that the high-touch “counter experts” did during this golden age of the department?

the customer is always right

The customer is always right. What the heck does this mean? It’s such a vague and obscure comment to many; what are they right about? Why should we care that the customer is always right? Aren’t we the retailer, right? Our data says X, but the customer says Y. Our data must be correct! No? How can it be wrong? We have invested in this full-stack of SaaS products and hired a top-rated systems integrator to deploy these systems. We have to be right, right? No!

When I was a child I knew walking into Marshall Field’s, Selfridge’s, or even my grandfather’s or father’s store in Brooklyn, NY that the customer was always right. Why? It’s simple. These retailers knew how to listen to someone’s opinion and taste and then apply it to merchandise, objects, and services. What Harry Selfridge did better than anyone during his era was listen to his customers. Based on this, he would display products, train high touch “counter experts”, reward those who excelled in moving the merchandise, and bring attention to his store with window designs and events. 

The Department Store Experience

The department store became a destination in the late 19th and early 20th century. It was a place that defined culture, marked milestones, sparked inspiration and creativity, and at times served as therapy for escaping the pressures of the world.

These past experiences have set a precedent for what we come to expect from retailers, department stores, and luxury goods. But, most of all with people who are subject-matter experts in a certain product, category, or service that we the customer are “right” about seeking.

customer service

As a customer, when we enter a modern retailer, we want an immersive experience that will drive our curiosity. Once we come across a subject-matter expert who can inform us about the item, we form a deeper relationship with the store, the item, its brand, and the person who helped us. That one individual can make or break our relationship with the aforementioned variables.

Breaking Down The Barriers of Retail

Breaking down the barriers of modern retail is as much about having enough retail space within your store to develop an immersive environment as it is about the specific skills that the “counter experts” need in order to help build brand loyalty. That’s a small slice of the why behind the state of “the customer is always right” and how this notion drove the growth of Marshall Field’s, Selfridge’s, and other successful retail brands.

retail Hierarchy

How Has This Concept of “the Customer Is Always Right” Lead to Retail Innovations?

The simple answer is options. Options in terms of product assortment dimensioned by size, color, material, etc. Giving customers a variety of choices enables them to be “right” and feel in control. Furthermore, it creates a retail environment that is hierarchical in its structure.lThis consists of categories, products, checkout experience, and customer relationship programs.

retail environment

Brick and mortar environments have a tremendous advantage over their online counterparts due to the simple fact that there is a human element. Having an opportunity for human to human interaction enables specific questions to be asked and answered and a relationship to be cultivated. When shopping online the closest experience that we have to “counter experts” is chat bots, phone-based guided shopping experiences, and the customer’s account portal. These online “counter experts” drive merchandise-based conversations and lead to deeper customer connections.

The Core Tenants of Retail

What does a retailer need to facilitate this conversation over the web? 

Let’s start with mapping out the Core Tenants :

core tenants

Replicating the Charm of In-Store Retail Online

The SaaS software stack has replaced the in-store retail space. User experience has become the interior design, and the customer experience is now the “counter expert.” Online retailers can replicate the charm of old-school retail by utilizing SaaS and organizing the right infrastructure, strategic approach, training, and most of all, hiring the right people.

Retailers who embrace the tactics of old-school retail and apply it to their online business will retain their relevance. The most amazing part about this is that the golden age of department store retail is incredibly well documented. Online retailers have such amazing references and sources to help define this new modern era of omnichannel retailing.

how to cater to your customers

Survival in any era of retail boils down to obtaining a few key resources. This includes arming your business with the best product assortment, customer service, user experience, and building brand recognition. What makes this moment in time so unique is the amount of available resources to fine-tune the aforementioned core tenants to create an amazing brand experience.

Related Articles