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Selfridges: the history of ownership of a retail icon

Lauretta Roberts
24 December 2021

“There are no hard times for good ideas.” So said Selfridges founder Harry Gordon Selfridge and never has a sentiment felt more resonant than now. In the midst of what has been the most challenging and unpredictable time for retail in living memory, the store that he opened in 1909 at the west end of London's Oxford Street, has been sold (along with others in what is known as The Selfridges Group) to a 50/50 joint venture between Thailand's Central Group and Austria's Signa Holding for a reported £4bn.

Despite its stores being forced to close its doors for months due to COVID-19 restrictions and despite the fact that former owners the Weston family had been plotting to sell the business, Selfridges never stopped coming up with great ideas to inspire and delight its customers during the pandemic from the opening of a cinema to the staging of weddings with a difference and an open air Christmas fair. It also underscored its commitment to a more sustainable approach to shopping entering into the fashion resale and rental markets in the process. The spirit of Harry Selfridge and his good ideas did not wane in the face of the greatest of challenges.

Harry Gordon Selfridge

Other department stores (Debenhams and Beales to name just two) may have fizzled out in recent times but Selfridges fizzed with excitement. It is no surprise that Central and Signa (who between them own Italy's La Rinascente, Denmark's Illum, KaDeWe in Germany and Globus in Switzerland) swooped to land what they consider to be a prize asset. Also included in the deal for the four UK Selfridges stores (in London, Manchester and Birmingham) are the Brown Thomas and Arnotts stores in Ireland and De Bijenkorf in The Netherlands.

The move marks another landmark change of ownership for Selfridges, whose history is as colourful as that of its exuberant American founder, who having run up gambling debts, was ousted by the board in 1941. It is said that after he was exited from the business, he would take the bus from his home in Putney to the Oxford Street store, just to stand outside and look at it. He died penniless in 1947.

Former CEO Vittorio Radice and then CFO Peter Williams at Selfridges. Credit: Alamy

For a while Selfridges lost the sparkle that its founder had sprinkled on the business in his lifetime – he invented experiential retail a century before anyone even heard the term. But it was a certain Vittorio Radice who is credited with bring the shine and style back to Selfridges. He was CEO from 1996 to 2003 (when the Westons acquired it) and convinced then owner Sears to install the escalators in the centre of the store so customers could see all around them while travelling up and down (sounds simple but it was revolutionary) and it was he who introduced the bright yellow branding and carrier bags that are globally recognised, and it was he who transformed it into a global fashion force. If ever there was a worthy success to Selfridge himself, it was Radice.

It's poetic then that it appears that Radice was instrumental in the latest deal. Radice has been leading department store La Rinascente, owned by Central Group, since 2006. His role at the group includes responsibility for expansions in Europe and it's no surprise at all that once Selfridges was put on the block he helped secure the deal seeing off interest from others, which were said to include the LVMH group (owner of Le Bon Marche and La Samaritaine) and the Qatar Investment Authority (owner of Harrods).

Radice won't be running Selfridges, it seems, as group managing director Anne Pitcher will be staying with the group, which provides some much needed continuity as it transfers into new hands. But with Radice behind the scenes and Pitcher still at the helm, there is reason for great optimism that the good ideas for this business will keep coming, just as its founder would have wanted.

Here's a brief history of how Selfridges has changed hands since it was first founded.

1909 London Flagship store opened by American retailer Harry Gordon Selfridge who wanted to bring the spirit of great American department stores, such as Marshall Field's where his career began as a stockroom boy, to the UK

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 Selfridges is sold to a joint venture between Thailand's Central Group and Austria's Signa Holding joining a group of department stores that includes Germany's KaDeWe, Illum in Denmark and Italy's Rinascente among others

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