My father never tires of talking about the bed he once bought at Ikea. After renting a lorry and driving the bed to his flat on the outskirts of London—inching down the M25 in gridlock traffic—he could not get the box spring up the apartment stairs, try as he might. In the foulest mood imaginable, he loaded the bed back into the truck and drove back to the store. My father claims he spent, in total, twenty-four hours in the store. I pity the fool at Returns who had to encounter that wrath.
My father, it should be said, has had bad luck with Ikea. He bought the popular Poäng chair—which is meant to bear great amounts of weight and has supposedly withstood rigorous stress tests—with the matching leather footstool. Tying his shoelace, he sat down upon the footstool and promptly fell right though it. He grazed his back and hurt his bad knee.Amazingly, though, neither incident has stopped him from shopping there. God knows, there are plenty of good reasons to hate Ikea, and not just the Delphic instruction diagrams and the traffic jams—both to and within the cavernous warehouses that speckle suburban landscapes the world over. There are skeletons galore in the Pax closets of Ikea and its founder, Ingvar Kamprad. There is Kamprad’s brush with Nazi politics, his alcoholism, accusations of child labour in the rug sector and rumours that Kamprad made more money last year than Bill Gates. Not to mention the fact that Ikea is homogenizing furniture aesthetics one Billy bookcase at a time.
So where are the protesters? In the early days, Ikea was boycotted by Swedish suppliers, and it’s true that a bomb was discovered in a Dutch branch in 2002 (though this was in fact part of a bungled blackmailing plot). There is an anti-Ikea terrorist group in the film
Fight Club, but that was hyperbolic and largely seen as comedic.So what’s Ikea’s secret? How can it be taking over the world and still appear to be the good guy? To find out, my friend Mo and I did the very thinkable and spent one of the busiest weekends of the year—Labour Day weekend—at Montreal’s own Blue and Yellow. After all, if we couldn’t manage an invite to some Laurentian cottage, where else would we want to be?
There is only one way to every Ikea (a highway, usually congested) and only one way to get in (don’t even
think about trying the automated exit doors). Ikea is about enlightened Swedish conduct, and this orderliness is one reason the company has succeeded. Things work like clockwork here.
That also goes for the precise, unvarying persistence of its worldwide spread. The recent film Good Bye Lenin!
documents the destruction of the wall between East and West Germany, with the usual capitalist clichés signalling the new reality: fashionable clothes, an unfurled banner for Coca-Cola, a blimp in the sky. The freshest symbol, though, is a poster ad for Ikea.
How apropos, considering Ikea has globalization down pat. Founded in 1943, the Ikea group now boasts 186 retail outlets in thirty-five countries, including several new branches in formerly hostile China and Russia. Last year, 310 million people visited its stores (which are based in every continent save Africa, South America and Antarctica). Sales for the year totaled $12.2 billion
US. Founder Ingvar Kamprad may very well be the richest man in the world—living frugally in tax-free Switzerland. In a comprehensive two-part series on Ike a published in June 2004, London’s Guardian newspaper claimed that 10 percent of Europeans currently alive were conceived on Ikea beds. And all of this began on a small Swedish farm. The catchy company name is in fact a synthetic acronym that combines the initials of the founder (Ingvar Kamprad), of the farm in question (Elmtaryd) and of the village where he grew up (Agunnaryd).
And the inspiration behind Ikea’s huge web of design, production and automated-distribution
warehouses? In 1955, an employee who was trying to transport a table realized that if he took off the legs he could easily fit the table in the trunk of a car. In fact, he could fit several tables. And so flat packing was born. It was brilliant: you could transport more materials in less space and avoid the risk of transport damage at the same time. The process required less storage space and less labour, and earned Ikea more money. Then someone came up with the even cleverer idea of having the customer do the work of assembling the product—shaving more time, money and backbreaking exercise off the process for the retailer and giving alienated urban buyers a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of attachment to their mass-produced furniture.
Kamprad and the Ikea family have created the ultimate one-stop shop for family home furnishings—and people are literally dying to get in. On September 1, 2004, twenty thousand visitors lined up for the grand opening of an Ikea store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In the crush, clamour and extremely high temperatures, three people died and sixteen others were injured. It’s a sad story, but a telling indication of the mania and popularity that attends this burgeoning brand.
Opening the vaultlike doors, Mo and I were immediately greeted by a long, winding line of kids. A friendly-looking black man with a clipboard was writing something down and giving each kid a numbered pinny. After the parents signed some kind of consent form, the wee ones were shuttled into what can only be described as tot paradise: a sea of blue, red and yellow balls in which they could jump in a hysterical frenzy. All the kids behind the glass casing seemed deliriously happy, except for poor number 41, who sat quietly sobbing on a bench. Next to the child stood an employee with his arms crossed over his chest (perhaps they are told not to touch the kids?). It was hard to tell if number 41 had been disobedient and been reprimanded—or if he had suddenly realized that Mom had raced off to buy a stain-resistant sofa and he missed her terribly. Mo and I wanted to make him feel better, so we kind of waved sympathetically through the glass—but then, worried that he might think us abductors or scary strangers, we moved away. Mo noted that there was a faint whiff of diaper in the air.
Joining the stream of people, we passed tempting bins of knick-knacks that spanned the spectrum from useful to useless. You might not have thought that you needed a Mållen clip to hang up your magazines on your bathroom towel rack—but now that they mention it, of course you do. A bin full of brown teddy bears made us laugh, but later we saw a little girl hugging a chosen bear fiercely. Not so useless after all.
An ad for the Ikea restaurant offered a scrambled egg, warm croissant, potatoes and some unidentified meat—
all for $1. I was impressed, but Mo figured we should stay on track (there was, after all, a bigger pot of gold at the end: the Ikea hot dog). But is there a better example of Ikea’s knack for turning a problem into an opportunity? Kamprad realized early on that a hungry shopper is an impatient and frustrated beast, so he always made sure sundry comestibles were close at hand. And he still does. Ninety-nine-cent cappuccinos are available at the cafeteria; there, shoppers can also wolf down gravy-covered potatoes, which they will need to withstand the exhaustion of the showrooms. Sometimes, the lineups for the Swedish meatballs are longer than the
But Kamprad has had to contend with more than just hypoglycemic consumers. In 1994, it was leaked to the Swedish press that as a youth Kamprad had been affiliated with Nazi politics through a quasi-fascist Neo-Swedish movement. Kamprad did not deny it or sweep the accusation under his Strib rug. Instead, he wrote an internal memo to all his “co-workers” (Ikea-speak for “employees”) admitting his stupidity as a youth and requesting forgiveness. The Ikea family turned out solidly behind him, and Kamprad even received a letter of support signed by several hundred workers. Ikea is an exceptionally tight-knit group, so perhaps this is not surprising. What is surprising, though, is how the media seemed to let this dirty secret drop.
Perhaps the credit should go to the brain boxes in the Ikea publicity department, who are doing a great job of safeguarding the company’s rep. In the 1990s, a German TV documentary accused an Indian carpet supplier of using child labour, and in some complicated way Ikea appeared to be involved. It turns out the documentary was a fake, and Ikea blameless. But the store knows how to stick up for the little guy. Compensation from the TV company was passed along to the rug supplier, which used the money to set up a school on its premises. Ikea then decided to make an even more significant contribution by launching (in conjunction with UNICEF) a comprehensive community development program to help prevent child labour in India. Another example of Ikea’s Midas touch, turning problem into opportunity.
Same goes with being green. Ikea is able to offer such low prices in part because it buys its raw material in bulk on a global scale. A
s it turns out, Ikea is not only economical, it’s also ecological. It has a policy of not using wood from intact natural forests, unless those forests are certified—and in the future it hopes to get all its wood from certified well-managed forests. In 2001, Ikea founded a scholarship for students from Russia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania to study forestry in Sweden. And there’s also the Sow a Seed Foundation, created by Ikea in 1998 to help rehabilitate 14,000 hectares of degraded Malaysian rain forest. Of course, by producing flimsy furniture, consumers are forced to replace items more often—
which isn’t very green at all.
But no one seems to think of that. Ikea just knows how not to appear the asshole. Its high-end executives are famous for flying cheap, and Kamprad is the most frugal of the bunch. This doesn’t mean that Ikea’s co-workers aren’t rewarded for their hard work. In 1999, Ingvar announced that on October 9 (traditionally the busiest day of Ikea’s year), the total proceeds of worldwide sales would be divided equally among all employees as a millennium bonus for his hard-working “family.” The Big Thank You Event, as it was known, grossed almost $80 million US; for some employees, their portion was more than a full month’s wages.
Ikea is clearly doing well for itself. The fake Apple computers of the past have been replaced by real flat-screen monitors. Gone, too, are the paper replica TVs; it seems Philips and Ikea have shaken on a deal. But while all signs point toward “major multinational,” Ikea has managed to maintain its cuteness. Who didn’t love that commercial with the poor ugly lamp put out on the street? Not everyone knows, though, that wunderkind director Spike Jonze (of Being John Malkovich fame) was hired to create it. In other words, one should not underestimate just how calculated this cute image is—and that goes for the whole lexicon of adorable names the company has created: the Poäng chair, the Billy bookcase, the multipurpose Slom jar, the Dunker floor lamp, a whole line of pale particleboard furniture dubbed Lack. Many of these names have become catchphrases for my generation. Even cuter is the lady who sits in an office in Sweden coming up with these tags and making sure they don’t mean anything rude in the many different languages of Ikea’s customers. (A bed name meaning “good lay” in German did squeak by once, though.)
Point is, Ikea has sold itself to the world—and by that I mean not only its products, but also its aesthetic. In 2003, more than 130 million copies of the much-sought-after Ikea catalogue were distributed worldwide. In its pages, beautiful families cuddle up under white duvets in birch bed frames. Golden retrievers sit in sunny kitchens. It’s the attractive Nordic simplicity we want, and it’s attainable at a reasonable price.
When Ikea came to the US in 1985, the going trends in furniture were brocade couches and heavy dark wood—a kind of gothic ornate. Ikea bucked the trend, offering the Swedish aesthetic instead: birch furniture and spare design. Before, such design had been reserved for the rich, the artistic and the minimalist. But Ikea put chic on sale. In 1980, it declared the Year of the Children’s Living Room, offering stain-resistant Klippan sofas with removable covers that you could pop in the washer. Gone were the days of stuffy plastic-covered living rooms reserved for guests: Ikea offered beguilingly straightforward lifestyle solutions that made sense. As a recent series of commercials famously dramatized, the Ikea showrooms are deliberately set up for this disarming effect. During my visit, I sat on a corduroy chair that was part of a faux living room, complete with Swedish tomes lining the bookcases. A couple walked over and plopped down on the sofa beside me. “Did you go to the doctor?” he asked her. She nodded. “Are you pregnant?” She wasn’t. Apparently, there is now family planning going on in Ikea.
My Labour Day experience, alas, was turning out to be disarmingly civilized. I wanted chaos, I wanted frenzied university students blowing down the aisles with overbearing moms and impatient dads. But people just travelled in an orderly fashion, sticking to the course and rarely going against the natural flow. I tried to squeeze the juice from a Scandinavian-looking Québécois employee.
“Pretty busy on Saturdays, I guess?” I said.“Yes, but busy is good,” he answered.
“But you must be stressed,” I continued.
“I am never stressed,” he replied with an authority I could not dispute. “It happens, but not to me.”
Truth be told, I wasn’t that stressed either. Gentle David Gray was playing over the loudspeaker, there were heart-
shaped ice-cube trays for sale, and the staff was nothing but courteous and kind.
Mo and I tried to test that Swedish friendliness in the bed department by crawling under the covers of a Robin bed.
An employee wearing a headset walked by and smiled. In the kitchen section, two young girls managed to break a vase while horsing around. We could tell that the two girls wanted to bolt, but Mo and I (very interested in the outcome) caught their eye and held them immobile in our stare. Other showroom pedestrians had stopped to watch as well. An Ikean sauntered over with a broom and a smile and, with a small shrug of the shoulders and another smile, the two girls were dismissed. After all, the vase was only $2.99.
Ikea has triggered a massive change in the way people see furniture. Once upon a time, household movables were keepsakes, objects of worth that represented family history and cultural values. Now we call such pieces “antiques” or “heirlooms” and we pick them up at country fairs or auctions. With Ikea, furniture became altogether lighter, both emotionally and literally—a perfect match to younger buyers’ transient lifestyles.
The bottom line is, Ikea’s prices don’t break the bank. At one point, Mo breathed excitedly, “There are so many things to want.” We then passed a poster with the simple solution: HAVE IT ALL. (They can read minds, you see.) Ikea has products so cheap it’s hard not to buy them; the company calls these items “hot dogs” because they cost as little as Ikea’s famous wieners. One of the company’s biggest selling items, in fact, is not furniture at all, but Glimma tealight candles—those miniature wax cupcakes sold in bags of 100 for $3.50. And then there’s the massive profit margin that’s allegedly made off these low prices. Ikea does not officially talk about such figures, but the Guardian claims an average Ikea product rakes in a profit margin of 17 to 18 percent, which is exceptionally high. It seems that old Kamprad has it figured out. But at what cost?
Some, myself included, are wary of this homogenization of lifestyle. It is downright creepy that what each of us calls “home” is being replicated the world over. What you thought was yours, a reflection of your tastes, you suddenly see as someone else’s bed. You sit down at a20dinner table that is just like your dinner table, with plates and glasses that look just like yours. While this is disconcerting, it often seems like a small price to pay (especially when you can afford no other). Apparently, the key to happiness is of the Allen variety.
Ikea’s good-guy image is ultimately sustained by one simple fact: it is not an American multinational. No one thinks of Sweden as a superpower with plans to take over the world. When we think of Sweden, we think of Swedish berries, good social services, public daycare and healthy families who like to take saunas together. Not surprisingly, the family services at Ikea are outstanding. The dazed young parents who brave the shop are supplied with quaint diaper-changing rooms, kid exercise centres, microwave ovens in the restaurant to reheat milk and Poäng chairs scattered around the warehouse for the hundreds of pregnant women to take a rest.
Waiting in the checkout line, I heard a man beside me mutter, “I want to die right now.” A couple just ahead looked like they were ready to move out before they’d even moved in together. There was exhaustion in the faces of the Ikea shoppers, but also triumph. They’d made it to the end. The U-Hauls were lined up in the loading bay, right beside the Ikea moving trucks, which can be rented out for $20. We grabbed some dogs and some lingonberry juice concentrate and hit the road—and there wasn’t even traffic.