The principles of pioneers such as Gordon Selfridge are as relevant as ever in modern retailing

Marks & Spencer is 125, Selfridges is 100, Sainsbury’s is 140 – it’s a year of big retail birthdays.

I find the stories behind these amazing businesses extraordinary and inspiring. What I particularly enjoyed reading recently were the writings of Gordon Selfridge, who comes across as a truly visionary leader.

In 1910 Selfridge wrote: “Inspire your whole force with the right spirit and customers shall buy with understanding – treat them as guests whether or not they buy and give them all that can be given fairly on the principle that to them that give shall be given.”

I love the generosity of spirit behind this quotation and the way that it places the customer at the heart of any business. Creating a deeper level of understanding with your customers is an important philosophy and one that sits at the centre of good web retail businesses.  

I think the most compelling retail ideas place spectacular and surprising customer service at their heart. Some clothing sites are dramatically improving customers’ experience by helping people manage their style and finding looks that flatter them – many online sites now offer the ability to keep your size on record so that you can find what suits.

Myshape.com in the US does this well, allowing its 600,000 regular users to upload their details, manage their wardrobes and pick styles to match their body shape.

High-end fashion sites here in the UK are also helping customers find products best suited to them. My-wardrobe.com has a friendly boutique style that matches pieces in a quirky and interesting way. The grande dame of the web, Net-a-Porter, has real live human stylists for its top customers who are brilliant at answering even the smallest request. The recently launched Rousilland.com combines a beautiful-looking site with offline events that you can attend to take advantage of its special offers.

But it’s not just high-end sites that are thinking about how to make their customers feel like guests and offer them something engaging and fun – Asos.com combines fast fashion with a vibrant community interested in trends.

One of the facts that makes me smile is that on Facebook there are more than 20 different groups in honour of the Marks & Spencer sweet Percy Pig – the largest one has over 30,000 members, all drooling over their favourite sweet. I believe all of this is absolutely connected to Selfridge’s notion of customers buying with understanding.

It is testament to one of the retail giants of the last century that his words are as relevant to the new retail businesses as the old ones. As he wisely said: “Recollection of spirit and quality will be remembered long after price is forgotten”.

  • Martha Lane Fox is a director of Marks & Spencer and founder of Lucky Voice