Born in Wisconsin, Selfridge joined a retail firm (Field, Leiter and Co - later Marshall Field and Co) in 1879, and over the following 25 years worked his way up the commercial ladder, being appointed a junior partner and amassing a considerable personal fortune in the process.
In 1906 he travelled to London with his wife Rosalie. Unimpressed with the quality of existing British stores, he decided to invest some £400,000 in building his own department store in the then unfashionable western end of Oxford Street. It opened on 15 March, 1909 and set new standards for retailing practice.
Credited with the phrase "The customer is always right", Selfridge used advertising extensively and structured shopfloors so that goods were more accessible to his customers, with staff on hand to assist, not sell.
He was devoted to his wife, but she died in 1918 and, without her steadying influence, he began to spend money extravagantly, to maintain a busy social life. Selfridge entertained lavishly at his London house (Lansdowne House, 9 Fitzmaurice Place in Berkeley Square - where he is commemorated by a blue plaque), where he lived from 1921 to 1929. At the height of his fortune, he also bought Highliffe Castle in Hampshire, but the depression years, coupled with a gambling habit, saw his finances collapse and in 1941 he left the Selfridges company, dying in poverty in Putney, south-west London, in 1947.
He was buried at Highcliffe, next to his wife and his mother.