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What This Retail Pioneer Can Teach You About Strategic Gifting

John Ruhlin
John Ruhlin

Harry Selfridge's gift-giving practices helped propel his brand to success.

Nothing in business happens in a vacuum. Actions inspire reactions, and success relies on the quality of the relationships we build. Modern companies want to be more than just faceless vendors, with 56 percent of U.S. consumers saying they want brands to understand them and their priorities, according to a Wunderman study. And entrepreneurs need to build networks to get their feet in the door.

Whether you're trying to gain influence or expand it, you need to build meaningful relationships, and that's challenging. Sure, smart technology and internet-connected everything make it easier to communicate. But the technology also helps more people fight for the attention of the same people you're trying to attract.

So how do you rise above the noise? If you follow Harry Selfridge's example – and you should, as Selfridges & Co. is one of the most successful department stores in history – you'll see that the key to good relationships is strategic, well-thought-out gifting.

The Selfridge lesson of gift-giving

Social media is the dominant venue for word-of-mouth advertising these days, no doubt about it. But long before social media burst onto the scene, Selfridge understood the importance of giving people good things to say about him, and his most effective channel was the traditional press.

Journalists, social influencers and editors were all important in Selfridge's world. His renowned Press Club Room catered directly to reporters, providing typewriters, telephones and a fully stocked bar. He also ensured editors' wives received first-class access to the store's Palm Court restaurant.

Gift-giving was a cornerstone of Selfridge's success. Everyone in the Press Club received gifts every holiday and on their birthdays and anniversaries. The gifts themselves might be considered outdated today, but the lesson remains potent: If you surprise and delight people with gifts that make their lives better, easier and more successful, you'll stand far above the competition in their eyes.

The Giftology formula

Some people speculate that Selfridge's drive to please the media sprang from a fear of bad press. Maybe so, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The more meaningful lesson, however, is that his methodology worked.

Want to use gifts to improve your business relationships? Start by taking a page from Selfridge's book and employing some similar gifting strategies.

1. Make people's lives better and easier.

At a core level, we all want "easier" and "better" lives, but we rarely know exactly what that means. Many modern businesses have figured out that, at least in the retail space, it means on-demand shopping and home delivery within a day or two. As Shep Hyken says in his book "Be Amazing or Go Home," convenience is the best way to make anyone's life easier. In fact, the Wunderman study also found that convenience is what drives about 62 percent of U.S. consumers to one brand over another. That's why the most successful companies focus on providing one-of-a-kind customer experiences.

The lesson here is that everyone's life can be improved if it can be made easier. Choose gifts that make your recipients' daily lives more convenient. They don't have to be work-related, either: If you know that someone loves cooking, send an engraved set of expensive kitchen knives. If a potential partner loves to get outside, go for high-end workout gear. Capitalize on recipients' hobbies and talents, offering gifts that make it easier for them to do what only they can.

2. Help people succeed at their jobs.

Today's marketplace is extremely competitive, and providing someone with a steppingstone toward success will give you an advantage too. Delivering the fuzzy feeling that comes with receiving a great gift is nice, but letting someone know you can be an asset is the cornerstone of a strong business relationship. People will turn to connections who have been beneficial in the past, especially when they're feeling down and out.

In Selfridge's department store, that meant providing necessities such as paper, typewriters and telephones so journalists could do their jobs while enjoying themselves in the Press Club Room. Try offering a tangible gift that could help attract new talent or keep employees loyal, such as a state-of-the-art coffee maker or a pinball machine for the break room, or consider intangible gifts like referrals or introductions. Give gifts that help people succeed at their jobs, and you'll be one of the first they turn to as a partner.

3. Surprise and delight people.

It should be clear by now that the typical gifting playbook won't work here. Generic gifts delivered on holidays and birthdays just won't cut it. But high-quality gifts that arrive when your recipients least expect them are sure to get the full attention and appreciation they deserve. Want to prove that you're actually as good at your job as you say you are? Show it through a shockingly great gift.

To stand out and generate the engagement you want, get out of your comfort zone and brush off societal expectations. A $20 bar of chocolate might be nice, but a $200 portfolio makes a huge impact. Splurging on expensive gifts might seem like a pretty big risk, but leveraging your funds in gift form is a unique way to get your recipients to say "wow!" You don't want to hear just an "oh, thanks." That "wow" factor shows that you aren't just giving a gift because you think you have to – you're doing it because you care about your relationship.

When Selfridge & Co. became the most successful department store in the early 1900s, Harry understood that cultivating a good relationship with the public was vital to that success. Technology has certainly changed quite a bit since then, but people haven't. Gift-giving is one of the most effective business strategies you can develop, because if you do it right, it's a surefire way to build strong, lasting connections.

Image Credit: Nithid Memanee/Shutterstock
John Ruhlin
John Ruhlin Member
John Ruhlin is the founder and CEO of the Ruhlin Group, a firm that specializes in high-level gifting plans to build relationships and acquire new clients. The Ruhlin Group helps leaders not suck at showing gratitude. The Ruhlin Group’s partnership with Cutco has enabled it to become the No. 1 distributor of Cutco in Cutco's 60-year history. John is a sought-after speaker on the topics of C-level selling, relationship development, and strategic gifting; he is also the co-author of the best-selling book “Cutting Edge Sales" and the author of the recently released book "Giftology."