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Harrods & Selfridges: a history of the ownership of two iconic department stores

Lauretta Roberts
19 October 2021

In the 19th and early 20th century, department stores enjoyed something of a heyday in the British retail scene. Inspired by the so-called "Cathedrals of Retail" on the continent and in the US, such as Le Bon Marché in Paris and Marshall Fields in Chicago, stores such as Selfridges and Harrods transformed shopping from a chore into a leisure activity.

These two icons of British retail (though one was founded by an American) were championing experiential and customer-centric retail a century or more before they became retailing buzzwords and between them introduced Britons to the concepts of browsing (goods were laid out and customers were able to touch them, rather than them being hidden away in cabinets and drawers) and such revolutionary concepts, such as the escalator. Customers in Harrods were offered a nip of brandy after safely disembarking its first "moving staircase" to calm their nerves.

However with the advent of online shopping, out of town shopping and the direct to consumer movement, department stores struggled to retain relevance as we entered the 2000s and, during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, Britain's largest and oldest chain of department stores Debenhams collapsed. And, in a sign of the times, it is now a website only (with one beauty store set to open soon), owned by Manchester-based online fashion group Boohoo.

And yet, two of our best known department stores have remained robust performers. Their commitment to service, experience and excellence of product, complemented by the stunning locations and architecture of their stores, has meant that Selfridges and Harrods remain relevant and much loved shopping destinations. But they have also, to this point, been rivals.

That may well change, however, as yesterday it was revealed that the Qatar Investment Authority, which took over Harrods in 2010, was one of the suitors circling Selfridges, which has been put on the block (along with the other businesses in The Selfridges Group, including Brown Thomas, Arnotts, De Bijenkorf and Holt Renfrew) by its Canadian owner the Weston Family.

If that came to pass it would be an extraordinary union of two icons of British retail. (Others said to be circling Selfridges include the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, and Lane Crawford, Hong Kong's upscale department store. Whoever wins the race to take over, now seems a good time to look back at the fascinating history of ownership of these two landmark businesses.

Timeline: A history of ownership of Selfridges & Harrods

Selfridges

Founded by American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge

1909 London Flagship store opened

1926 Selfridges establishes the Provincial Stores company, which expanded to include 16 stores

1940 John Lewis Partnership acquires the Provincial Stores company

1941 Harry Gordon Selfridge ousted from the company by its board

1951 Liverpool’s Lewis’s chain acquires the Oxford Street store, expands brand by adding Moultons of Ilford and renaming its Selfridges

1965 Selfridges and Lewis’s purchased by Sears Group, owned by Charles Clore. Sears adds branch Oxford, but in 1986 rebrands it as Lewis’s

1990 Sears splits Selfridges from Lewis’s

1991 Sears places Lewis’s into administration

1998 Selfridges opens Manchester Trafford Centre and demerges from Sears

2002 Selfridges opens in Exchange Square, Manchester

2003 Selfridges opens in Bullring, Birmingham

2003 Galen Weston acquires Selfridges for £598m and it becomes part of The Selfridges Group, which also includes Brown Thomas and Arnotts in Ireland, Holt Renfrew in Canada and de Bijenkorf in the Netherlands

2021 Following the death of Galen Weston, the Weston family puts The Selfridges Group on the market with a reported price tag of £4bn

2021 Qatar Investment Authority is among the suitors circling Selfridges

Harrods

Founded by British retailer Charles Henry Harrod

1824 Charles Henry Harrod establishes his first business, a drapery, in Southwark

1834 Harrod establishes a wholesale grocery business in Stepney

1849 Harrod takes over a small store on the current site

1881 With the aid of Charles Henry’s son, Charles Digby, the business rapidly expands acquiring neighbouring sites and by 1881 employs 100 people

1883 The business is burnt to the ground but Charles Henry fulfils promise to fulfil all Christmas orders and makes a record profit. The current store is built shortly after

1889 Charles Harrod sells his interest in the store to Edgar Cohen for £120,000 via a stock market flotation

1889 The new company was called Harrod's Stores Limited. Sir Alfred James Newton became chairman and Richard Burbidge managing director.

1891 Financier William Mendel appointed to the board and raises funding for the business expansion plans.

1914 Harrods buys Regent Street department store Dickins & Jones

1917 Richard Burbidge succeeded his son Woodman Burbidge

1919 Harrods buys Manchester department store, Kendals; it took on the Harrods name for a short time in the 1920s, but the name was changed back to Kendals following protests from staff and customers

1920 Harrods buys Swan & Edgar in London and Walter Carter in Manchester

1928 Harrods buys London department store DH Evans

1935 Woodman Burbidge succeeded by his son Richard Burbidge

1946 Harrods buys Sheffield department store John Walsh

1949 Harrods buys Liverpool’s William Henderson & Co

1955 Harrods buys Rackhams in Birmingham

1959 House of Fraser acquires Harrods Stores Limited

1985 House of Fraser and Harrods acquired by the Fayed Brothers

1994 Harrods demerged from House of Fraser and the latter is floated

2008 Harrods opens at Heathrow T5

2010 Mohamed Al-Fayed sells Harrods to the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar

2020 Harrods opens outlet store in Westfield London

2021 Begins roll-out of standalone beauty stores H Beauty

2021 Qatar Investment Authority linked to a potential purchase of rival store Selfridges

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