I Had No Ikea

Sheepishly, I admit to having had no idea whatsoever that people would be so interested in Ikea when I wrote my post about the massive home furnishings retailer earlier in the week. Something about the combination of reasonably presentable modern design and low, low prices clearly inspires passionate responses from consumers, both good and bad. Also, I admit that the positive notices on Ikea were more abundant than I anticipated.

This interest doesn’t strike me as being about affordability as much as it’s about design. There are plenty of cheap furniture retailers out there, but how many of them inspire the impassioned, trainspotting chatter of Ikeafans.com, where customers trade every possible detail about the products and the store branches? Or the enthusiastic inventiveness of Ikea Hacker, where all manner of novel uses and transformations of Ikea goods are showcased? (Thanks to readers Gong Szeto, AJ Kandy and Jason Beaird for pointing those out to me.)

Everything You Ever Wanted in — and from — a Brand

The answer is very few, if any, businesses can muster patrons of that fervor. As I mentioned briefly in my post, Ikea, for good or bad, is a total design experience above all else. It’s been planned and managed down to the last detail, and as queasy as it makes me to physically stand in one of its stores, I can’t take away that triumph from them. With their cut-rate modernism, they’ve succeeded in selling design in ways that much tonier brands can only dream of.

What’s really fascinating to me about Ikea is that, as I also mentioned, there’s virtually no brand logo to be found inside its stores — other than Ikea’s own. It’s a kind of island to itself, a black hole for third-party brands. In many ways, it reminds me of the nearly-mythical idea of what a 20th Century company used to be, when huge corporations would operate their skyscrapers like branded cities, with their own kitchen staff, newspaper, security, medical care, etc. — all cashing weekly paychecks with the company logo on it, and all working towards providing every conceivable consumer good with that logo on it, too. By contrast, today’s corporate campuses are often maintained by collections of third-party vendors, and there’s no pretense of the employer as a kind of quasi-government that provides all things to its workers or to its customers.

The Ikea of Web Sites

There’s another interesting way to look at Ikea, too, and that’s through the lens of creating online experiences. If it isn’t obvious already, it’s impractical to build an Ikea on the net, and I’m not talking about selling home furnishings through e-commerce.

Rather, what I mean is that it’s impossible to create captive audiences the way a retailer like Ikea can. It’s no accident that most Ikea locations are located on the fringes of urban areas, where a nontrivial amount of travel is required to reach them, and where few other retail alternatives exist. It’s also no accident that, the hidden passageways mentioned by some readers aside, there’s a single, prescribed path through the showroom that the majority of customers will follow.

By contrast, there’s no shortage of easily accessible choices on the Web, and users can willfully troll multiple retailers at once, or pop in and out of retail sites at will via search engines, completely upending any attempt at guiding them through designated paths.

Most online transactions are the result of filtering through several different sites and brands, whether you’re shopping for furniture, clothes or even news. Even a site like Amazon.com is in many ways a federated experience consisting of many constituent vendors. It’s the closest online equivalent of a monolithic brand like Ikea that I can think of, and chances are very good that there won’t be another one like it any time soon. The age of one-stop shopping online is gone, if it was ever here in the first place.

As the user population’s online skills mature, brand experiences will only become more and more fractured in this way, not less, and it’s a mistake to think that a monolithic approach to building sites — huge, multi-purpose sites that attempt to be many things to many people — is a viable long-term plan. What’s that mean for big sites, for today and tomorrow? It means it’s probably inadvisable to try to build and brand everything yourself. I’ve told my bosses.

Furniture Funnies

Anyway, that’s the balance of my thoughts on the Ikea phenomenon, at least for now. Before I go, I want to leave you with this hilarious cartoon on the post-shopping Ikea experience, created by my friend Paul Oslo Davis. It’s funny because it’s true. And also because Paul rendered it so beautifully well.

Putting Together an Ikea Chest of Drawers, by Paul Oslo Davis
  1. Ikeas has gotten much better and very professional over the years with their self-construction schemes and explanations. Today not much grows you a beard any longer – but the stereotpyical connection of IKEA with self-assembly fun & frustration remains.

    Alas, a lot of the old charme gone. Where is the excitement when opening the box whether all screws would really be there?

    Gone forever.

    IKEA DO YOU HEAR ME? Loose your screws again, dammit!

  2. Ikea furniture is great, not only for looks, but also for their easy to assemble designs. I think if there is any problem with Ikea furniture, is that it is very recognizable, and when people see my Ikea furniture for example, people immediately will associate it with Ikea = Low Cost = Cheap. Not that there is anything wrong with cheap, but sometimes ‘designer products’ are associated with the idea that they are something you do not come across often.

  3. Regarding placement of stores, there is indeed a masterplan that IKEA stick to everywhere on the globe, be it Sweden or the US or Taiwan: it is SUPPOSED to involve flat packed furniture that you might have to collect yourself from shelves in urban areas, creating the IKEA experience. That is what helps them with scale of economics, but also keep them consistent (almost in absurdum) everywhere.

    Here (in the UK) some people say “I am NOT going to support cheap IKEA stuff, I’d much rather buy my stuff at Habitat (another chain, centrally located, more up-market than IKEA)” and not being aware of the fact Habitat is actually owned by IKEA as well, and one of the reasons IKEA don’t have to move any IKEA stores into city centres…they probably already own your “other” favourite furniture store, centrally located close to you…;)

  4. Want to buy stuff IKEA? First step, buy a small cordless drill. Assembly is way more fun with a drill.

  5. Doesn’t Apple have a similar ‘total brand’ experience? IKEA does not allow reselling, but Apple’s own relationship to reselling has, at times, been one foot in, one foot out.

    The Apple decision was a mixture of brand management and profit. Given the extreme economy of IKEA, I would bet their reason for limited reselling is supply chain costs and intermediary markups. Apple tried for years to keep their prices high, and to grab their entire margin. IKEA does the same, but their margin is much less, so reselling isn’t viable.

    The total brand experience in evident in any housewares chain of recent vintage (C&B, William-Sonoma, West Elm, Pottery Bar, Hold Everything) is pretty monolithic. Since a lifestyle is being sold, and promoted through one lens, the individual manufacturers accept their brand identity being subsumed because the number of units you can move once you have the imprimatur of Crate & Barrel outstrips what you get on your own. Sure, you see logos on products, but that’s it. You won’t see a showcase like you do at Target for their designer collections (Adler, Graves, etc).

    Here’s a IKEA idea I tried to launch about two years ago: Target vs. IKEA. It could be either a dual search mashup (enter a generic term — toaster, say — and you get side by side results for both brands), or a curate review site by designers who compare the absolute value (taking into consideration cost, durability, design, etc.) of two objects of parallel use from both brands.

    Target’s legal/brand dept got very interested in my ownership of targetvsikea.com, but IKEA never did. Oddly, though, once I let the registration lapse, Target didn’t grab it.

    If anyone is interested, I’d still love to do it.

  6. The cartoon is so right on the spot. Been there, done that. 🙂

    As I mentioned earlier we have no Ikea stores around so I can’t judge on the store experience. But I also made the connection in regards to the phenomenon of Ikea as a monolithic “cult brand”, a status very few brands, if ever, get to have. And in a way it’s highly unlikely to occur in business today, as you put out well. I for one I’m happy to see the era of end-all, be-all web portals is finally coming to a close. Because it never really worked out in the first place.

    The web today is much more atomized today than it was in the year 2000 for sure – but us web users as a whole have also matured, and have come to get savvy enough to know where to look for each and every thing we get to need instead of relying on a sole content provider to fulfill our needs.

  7. I have a few Ikea items, but I’m extremely selective — I look for the stuff that looks like it will last a very long time. This rules out 99% of their furniture.

    Regarding disposability: If you look hard on eBay, flea markets, and used-stuff stores, you can easily find a 50-year-old coffee table for nearly the same price as a brand new Ikea coffee table. The 50-year-old table will probably last another 50-150 years (because it was made in the pre-disposable-furniture era), while the Ikea table will almost certainly fall apart in only 3 years, forcing you to buy another one. The economics of Ikea’s low prices really aren’t what they seem.

    If you’re willing to go out and pay 5 times as much for a coffee table, you can readily find one that will last a hundred times as long as your Ikea table, and may even be used by your children and grandchildren. This is a astronomically better value than buying the disposable model.

    In fact, almost nothing that is disposable is actually economically (or environmentally) advantageous. Disposable products generally only satisfy short-term needs and spontaneous spending urges (you forgot your razor blade while travelling; you live paycheck to paycheck and have nothing to sit on to eat dinner; you really want to decorate your whole new apartment in a single day). It’s not usually viable as a long-term economic strategy.

    Half of my furniture is very old — stuff that belonged to my (or my wife’s) parents, grandparents, and in some cases great-great-grandparents. Not everything we own fits into a unified Garanimals-like pseudo mid-century modern minimalist aesthetic, but I see it as a fun design challenge to make a space look good with furnishings that have quality and meaning associated with them, and where the style is something I find appealing, however diverse they might be.

    It’s the obsession with newness and cleanness, however short-lived — a key part of the pleasure of the Ikea brand and lifestyle — that lets people feel comfortable buying something that is demonstrably crappy and will end up in a landfill.

    Buy old stuff.

  8. Don’t think Apple really resembles Ikea that much – their stores have plenty of third-party products and branding, just in a clean, subdued format.

    And just because I hadn’t seen anyone mention it, the redoubtable Jonathon Coulton has a song on the subject called “Ikea”.

  9. You can also take a class or rent some space at a place like 3rd Ward and make your own furniture. I had access to a great wood shop for years, so I had a chance to design and make all my furniture. Materials are generally not very expensive, however it is time consuming.

    In the end though, it is still not the best solution, but there is that satisfaction that you made what you use. You’ll also get a good understanding of the process that goes into fabrication, and be more likely to modify and fix that IKEA item when it starts to crack, or the finish wears off.

  10. I think the appeal behind IKEA goes beyond the design, marketing, and brand language. A lot of it might have to do with the fact/illusion that they are “passing the savings and convenience onto the consumer.” There is often a preconceived notion that anything preassembled must be more expensive than anything that you need to put together yourself, and if thirty minutes of your time and sweat is all it takes to save a hundred bucks, then IKEA furniture seems worthwhile to those who are less critical of the quality.

    Also, since the furniture is conveniently boxed into flat packages, in conjunction with putting the majority of IKEA stores in the boonies of some urbanite towns, shoppers are more inclined to buy as much as they can fit into their cars. “I can buy so much cool-looking stuff for so little money and still fit it into my car!”

    What a concept.

  11. I’ve actively avoided Ikea for our new interior. And have learned that it is almost impossible to find furniture that is actually better, cheaper OR more beautiful.
    Note the word OR. That’s right, it’s hard to find furniture that has one of these qualities, let alone two or all three.
    The last three years, Ikea has upped its quality markedly, making them that much harder to avoid.
    So, in the end I caved in, went to Ikea and found in three hours what I have been looking for for the last 5 months…
    One day I WILL buy all that “original” designer stuff, but on my budget there is sadly no substitute.

  12. Buying old stuff in NYC is expensive.

    At least when I start looking to furnish my old place in NYC..maybe i didnt look hard enough tho..who knows

    But! when I moved, I had no qualms about using Ikea’s “reselling” location: my local NYC sidewalk…stuff was gone in 5 minutes!

    “reuse” is one of the 3 Rs, no?

    My new home, Barcelona, has not one but 2 Ikeas well within the cities boundries!

  13. read ‘The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less’ by Barry Scwartz

    On a personal note, I hate the Ikea experience, if i go there with friends we don’t usually leave as friends. It is my contention that it is just too much choice for any one person to be able to wade through, whilst trying to make it to the end attempting to feel satisfied that you have chosen the ‘best’ option amongst the huge array available. not to mention the regret felt at buying cheap soon-to-be-broken-and-thrown-away furniture.

    The idea of disposable furniture seems incredible to me, is it not disgusting that rich western cultures can be so arrogant and wasteful?

    Also visiting Ikea in both the UK and the Netherlands where I’ve lived, i have found to my horror that they are EXACTLY the same. Even the meatballs! I expected similarities, but for some time i still thought i was in the UK, i have to say it certainly robbed me of my ‘personal’ connection and affinity with this brand seeing it carbon copied literally down to the layout.. everything! amazing.

  14. C’mon people, where’s your punk ethos?

    Rock up at Ikea and do it BACKWARDS. Walk in through the checkout area, pick up the packages for the large furniture items you need, and walk back out again.

    DON’T be tempted by the Market Hall, which operates on exactly the same principle as stocking by the supermarket checkout counter: people go to Ikea for a sofa and leave with armfuls of overdesigned crap.

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