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IKEA - it's not quite Scandinavian for value
Member Name: ms_memory
Advantages: Cheap and cheerful
Disadvantages: Poor quality, uncomfortable shopping experience
*** History ***
IKEA is a multinational furniture store founded in 1943 by a 17-year-old Swede, Ingvar Kamprad. Here's something for trivia fans: Kamprad used his initials to form the first half of the brand's name, while the E and the A come from Elmtaryd (his parent's farm) and Agunnaryd (his local parish). The company started off selling a range of consumer goods and later specialised in home wares, eventually becoming the global brand we know today and employing some 123,000 people at the last count.
*** The shopping experience - or how IKEA gets your money! ***
IKEA's unique selling points seem to be its Swedishness, which is emphasised in the product names and the array of Swedish food in the stores' grocery shop and restaurants, its warehouse-style stores, its DIY mentality (most of the furniture is flat pack and you fetch and carry it yourself) and the range and affordability of its products.
IKEA stores are invariably huge and usually located in out-of-town retail parks, so there's plenty of space to park. Sparsely decorated and utilitarian in style, their sole purpose is to make the customer buy as much as possible. Thus you are encouraged to walk the entire length of the store's furniture display, department by department, following the arrows on the floor and noting down the products you're interested in. You then descend to the accessories department, where you have to walk past shelves of candles, photo frames and plants, before entering the warehouse part of the store where you can pick up your flat-pack furniture straight from the palette and take it to the tills yourself, navigating further, strategically-placed palettes and bins of special offers as you go.
This store layout is very clever. Who hasn't been into IKEA to buy a coffee table only to come out of the store 3 hours later with enough purchases to fill the whole car? The attractive furniture displays encourage shoppers to purchase sets of furniture rather than single items, and they are always complemented by matching accessories such as rugs and curtains in a bid to tempt customers further. If you're clever you can bypass a lot of the display and head straight to the area you're interested e.g. bathrooms, but this usually only works if you've already been to the store a few times and know where the shortcuts are.
The accessories department, with its myriad of kitchen utensils, rugs, candles, plants, mirrors and storage baskets, is also difficult to bypass without buying things you don't need. The aisles are purposefully quite narrow in comparison to the trolleys - it only takes one trolley or buggy to temporarily block an aisle - and you therefore find yourself moving slowly and picking up random items to pass the time. Most of the accessories seem such good value that it's easy to fill your trolley before you even get to the warehouse.
Once in the warehouse, the queues move slowly and there are still more interesting items in the middle of the aisle or by the till to catch your eye and relive your boredom. Once you're through the checkouts, the wonderful world of the Swedish food shop beckons, with its meatballs, marzipan cakes, melt-in-mouth chocolates and loganberry jam, not to mention the hot dog stand. And then why not have a coffee in the cafe to recover from the experience before you go home?
In recent years it's become possible to shop online and/or check that your desired products are in stock before you go. Of course, you can save on delivery fees if you shop instore, but you usually ending spending more on unwanted goods anyway.
*** Advantages and disadvantages of the IKEA shopping model ***
-Browsing can be fun and the staff leave you alone; there's no hard sell.
-It's good to see furniture displayed rather than just in boxes, and handy too see what accessories it can be combined with. You can also try it out.
-If you know exactly what you want you can race through most departments quickly, provided there aren't too many other customers.
-In the furniture department it's difficult to go back to have a look at something if everyone else is moving in the opposite direction. This can lead to jams, delays and frayed tempers on a busy day such as Saturday.
-There are never enough staff around to help everyone; you often have to queue at a desk for a long time if you have a query.
-Shopping alone can be difficult - especially in the warehouse where you can put your back out quite easily trying to lift flat-pack items from palette to trolley.
-The tills are narrow and cashiers don't allow enough time for you to pack up your smaller items before the next customers' purchases come whizzing down the conveyor belt. You don't usually get much assistance with packing, even though wrapping up items such as glassware can take a long time.
-The paper bags are not strong enough; the blue plastic bags are strong but too open at the top: small items can easily fall out.
*** My opinion of IKEA products ***
Having furnished several flats with the help of IKEA, partly out of choice and partly out of necessity, I feel I'm qualified to judge most of their departments.
Basic furniture: There is a wide choice of tables, beds, chests of drawers, sofas etc. , though some of the models appear to have been around for decades. There are always innovative models, though, such as tables that fold up or out in various different ways or have built-in storage, or coffee tables and sofa beds with new, modern shapes. The very cheapest model of each range usually falls apart very quickly; this is evident if you test them in store (i.e. they will wobble when you touch them!). Oh, and watch out if you're moving - some of my more expensive items didn't go back together properly after I took them apart when moving house.
Textiles: Again there is a wide choice, with colours to suit all tastes (though fewer patterned items). I've found that the bedding, curtains and towels are usually great value as long as you don't buy the very cheapest. The rugs are a bit more hit and miss, but they do have some fantastic patterns.
Bathroom accessories: The cupboards and shelving units are really fiddly as you have to buy all the elements separately, even legs and handles, which means hours spent in the warehouse mulling over the scores of options and trying to select the right ones from an aisleful of identical boxes. I've found the other accessories too plasticky or cheap-looking, and the toilet seats had the wrong measurements when I was trying to buy one!
Kitchen equipment: The cutlery and crockery is great and even the cheapest lines last well. It's not the most interesting of china but you can pick up colourful pieces. The glassware section contains some really pretty wine and cocktail glasses which make great presents, and the kitchen utensils are competitively priced. The only things I really don't like are the pans - the handles keep falling off mine!
Decorative accessories: The candles are great, cheap, smell lovely and are long-lasting. The lamps are a bit boring and for some of them you can only purchase the bulbs from IKEA, which can be an inconvenience. I like the wide range of storage containers (though the plastic ones on display and are sometimes so tightly-packed that you can't separate them), while the photo-frames are good value if not that interesting. The vases are cheap and quite plain so that they'll blend in with most kinds of decor, but I wouldn't buy any flowers or plants from IKEA as they tend to wilt/die very quickly. Every plant I've bought there has been diseased!
*** Assembling your own furniture ***
The flat-pack model saves both IKEA and the customer money, but it certainly doesn't save the customer time or stress! I've never had a screw or other element missing from any of my purchases, but I know it can happen. What I find most difficult is the fact that the instructions have no words, just pictures. This is of course very cheap for IKEA - the translation costs for a global company like this would be astronomical - but for someone like me who is really bad at reading diagrams and much more verbal than visual, it can make the assembly process a tortuous one as I often end up attaching things upside down, back to front or in the wrong order then have to take it all apart again when I realise my mistake. Some of the cheaper items are not made to be taken part again; they're often made of soft, weak wood that splits when you insert a screw or knock a nail in. In addition, many of the items need a few people to put them together, which is difficult if you live alone or have just moved somewhere new and don't know anyone!
Having said that, you get a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you put your first bed or chest of drawers together!
*** Customer Service ***
As I said above, I find there aren't enough staff on the shop floor. There should be some kind of service for customers who can't lift or carry things that easily - if there is, it needs to be better advertised as I've never seen it.
It is possible to get your purchases delivered and even assembled for an extra charge. I've never paid for the assembly but have used the delivery service, which was terrible - they didn't seem to be able to stick to the scheduled appointments and didn't let me know either.
Items can only be returned if the packaging is opened, unless they're faulty. I've never had to queue for ages to return anything, but I have had to argue my case when returning faulty items such as lamps.
*** Marketing ***
IKEA advertising is usually funny and country-specific.
Having spent most of my adult and thus IKEA-shopping life living in Germany I'm more aware of the German ads, which change every few years and have clever slogans. The current ones asks "wohnst du noch oder lebst du schon?" - a play on the two words for "live" in German, suggesting that if you buy IKEA products you're not just existing, but really living. On TV and radio ads the speaker always has a thick Swedish accent which is supposed to make him sound funny and endearing.
I still remember the UK ad campaign "Chuck out your chintz", which was accompanied by a really catchy song.
I recently saw a French IKEA ad which stressed that you can still be an individual even if your flat is entirely furnished with IKEA products.
At the moment I'm getting the annual catalogue by post and smaller, seasonal ones every couple of months, which I don't find as aggressive as other companies that bombard me with junk mail.
*** Conclusion ***
IKEA is a a godsend in one sense as it allows you to furnish a flat or house on a budget without having to resort to mismatched second-hand furniture. For very little money you can make your home look chic, cheerful and colourful. This is especially useful if you're living somewhere temporarily and don't want to cart furniture halfway around the world with you.
On the other hand the shopping and assembly experience can be time-consuming, frustrating and more expensive than you had planned (especially if you injure yourself lifting heavy items!), and your home can end up looking generic if you don't buy any pieces anywhere else. If you move home you might find that your IKEA furniture cannot stand the test of being taken apart and re-assembled. If you can afford it it's better for your pocket and the planet to invest in good-quality, non-flat-pack furniture from the outset.
Summary: Can't live with it, can't live without it