What is it that makes IKEA a global phenomenon? Is it the DIY furniture? Is it the maze-like stores with free childcare? Is it the lingonberry jam?
Whatever the cause, the behemoth that is IKEA is not only the biggest producer and manufacturer of furniture in the world but also the most “meaningful.”
According to Paris-based Havas Media, IKEA ranks #6 on its list of “Meaningful Brands,” the result of a global survey measuring how people think companies benefit their “personal and collective well-being.” (Three years ago, IKEA was #1.)
(“Meaningful Brands,” Havas Media; Jennifer Rooney, “Ikea, Google, Nestle Tops in ‘Meaningful’ Impact: Survey,” Forbes, November 8, 2011)
Here’s my list of 10 things that give IKEA meaning in today’s world.
1. It’s big, Big, BIG
As of October 15, IKEA has 364 stores in 46 countries (map). These include the two stores in Taipei, where I was first introduced to the chain, and the newest store in the US, which opened last month in Meriam, KS, about two hours from my home.
(“Bringing the IKEA Concept Worldwide,” Inter IKEA Systems B.V.)
2. It has an “effect” named after it
IKEA is known for it’s “flat box” furniture, bought in a box at the store and assembled at home by the customer. While this can cause frustrations, especially if a piece is missing, it has it’s upsides. Researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Duke found that when people put effort into creating something, they like it more, even valuing their creations over others of higher quality. They dub this the “IKEA effect.”
(Michael Norton, “The IKEA Effect: When Labor Leads to Love,” Harvard Business Review, 2009)
3. Now it’s a kind of diplomacy, as well
It’s too early to say for sure, but I think the term IKEA diplomacy is going to catch on, too. Just a little over a week ago, Sweden recognized Palestinian statehood. This was followed by a swift condemnation from Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who said, “Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea.”
“I will be happy to send Israeli FM Lieberman an Ikea flat pack to assemble,” responded the Swedish foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom. “He’ll see it requires a partner, co-operation, and a good manual.”
(Inna Lazareva, “Ikea and Peace in the Middle East,” The Telegraph, November 1, 2014)
4. IKEA’s catalog is published in biblical proportions
Each year, IKEA prints millions of its catalogs each year. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2012 the company planned to distribute 208 million, which is estimated to be more than twice the amount of Bibles that are produced each year.
In 2012, the IKEA catalog made news when the company removed images of women from photos in the version distributed in Saudi Arabia. IKEA later apologized.
And September marked the announcement of the 2015 catalog in the highly innovative—dare I say groundbreaking—form of the “bookbook.” Genius.
(Jens Hansard, “IKEA’s New Catalogs: Less Pine, More Pixels,” Wall Street Journal, August 23, 2012; “Is the IKEA Catalogue Being Distributed in More Prints than the Bible?” Skeptics Stack Exchange; Ben Quinn, “IKEA Apologises over Removal of Women from Saudi Arabia Catalogue,” The Guardian, October 1, 2012; )
5. Its product names are just so Kwïrki
If you’ve shopped at an IKEA or browsed a catalog, then you know that each product carries some kind of Swedish—or Swedish-ish—name. They often sound odd (a shelf named Ekby Bjärnmum), sometimes funny (a soil block is called Kokosnöt), and sometimes unfortunate (I’ll let you Google for these yourself).
Of course, this isn’t just a Swedish-to-English issue. The Wall Street Journal reports that before opening a store in Thailand, IKEA put together a team with the sole purpose of catching names that sound off-color to the Thai ear, such as Redalen (a bed) and Jättebra (a plant pot), both of which sound like Thai sexual terms.
And then there’s Lufsig, IKEA’s stuffed wolf toy. In December of last year, an anti-government protestor in Hong Kong threw one at Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Cy Leung during a town-hall meeting. The man tossed the toy because Leung is called “wolf” by his critics. The action took on more meaning since the Cantonese name for the stuffed toy sounds like a crude sexual term in that language. Lfusigs became a must-have item and soon sold out.
(James Hookway, “IKEA’s Products Make Shoppers Blush in Thailand,” The Wall Street Journal, June 5, 2012; Per Lilies, “Stuffed IKEA Toy Becomes Offensive Anti-Government Symbol in Hong Kong,” Time, December 10, 2013)
6. Name another furniture store that’s known for it’s food
According to The Wall Street Journal, IKEA’s food division is on par in sales with Panera’s and Arby’s. And the cornerstone of its in-store restaurants and grocery products is the humble Swedish meatball, of which they sell around 150 million each year.
The meatballs are nothing fancy, just really, really good. Here’s how they’re described on the company website, in typical Scandinavian understatement:
– Meatballs are minced meat formed into round balls and then fried. Serve with boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam and cream sauce.
Even after its meatballs were recalled across Europe early last year, the store’s culinary reputation survived. Why the recall? Trace amounts of horse meat were discovered in a batch made by a Swedish supplier. If that news still gives you pause, have patience. Next year IKEA plans to roll out meatless vegetarian meatballs.
In the UK, IKEA even brews its own line of dark lager and regular brew beers.
Remember, this is a furniture chain we’re talking about.
(Jens Hansegard, “IKEA’s Path to Selling 150 Million Meatballs,” The Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2013; Andrew Higgins and Stephen Castle, “Ikea Recalls Meatballs after Detection of Horse Meat,” The New York Times, February 25, 2013; April Gosden, “Ikea Plans ‘Green’ Meatballs to Help Tackle Climate Change,” The Telegraph, April 17, 2014; Laura Stampler, “IKEA Now Brews and Sells Its Own Beer,” Business Insider, July 18, 2012)
7. It doesn’t want only to sustain its business, it wants to sustain the planet, too
Vegetarian meatballs aren’t the only thing “green” about IKEA.
The company started selling roof-top solar panels in the UK last year and in September it announced plans to expand that offering to 8 more countries in the following 18 months. It’s starting with the Netherlands and Switzerland and will move on from there.
As reported by Reuters, IKEA has installed 700,000 solar panels on its own rooftops at stores around the world and has plans to up its global use of wind turbines to 224. Other green initiatives include plans to replace, by 2020, all the plastic in its products with recycled plastic or renewable materials, such as wood.
And if you’re driving your electric car in the United Kingdom, you’ll appreciate IKEA’s announcement that all UK stores now have free electric vehicle rapid recharging points installed in their parking lots.
(“IKEA to Widen Solar Panel Sales to Eight New Nations from UK,” Reuters, September 22, 2014; “Electric Vehicle Charging,” IKEA)
8. In the time it takes to put together a couple bookcases, you could build a shelter for a refugee
Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the IKEA Foundation has invested $4.8 million to develop portable shelters, to be used by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Last year, 50 prototypes were shipped, in flat-pack boxes, to Syrian refugee camps. Olivier Delarue, UNHCR head of innovation, says that his agency was looking for an improvement on the tents typically used to house the displaced around the world and turned to IKEA for its “expertise in certain areas—such as logistics and flatpacking—that we could learn from.”
According to The Boston Globe, each 188-square-foot unit takes about four hours to assemble. The cost of a prototypes is $10,000 but is expected to fall below $1,000.
(Caroline Winter, “Ikea Sends its New Flatpack Refugee Shelter to Syria,” Bloomberg Businessweek, September 11, 2013; “Ikea: Refuge in a Flat Box,” The Boston Globe, July 5, 2013)
9. An IKEA store is like a 20-bedroom home away from home
It seems that many IKEAs not only have lines of people waiting to buy home furnishings, they also have lines of people wanting to make themselves at home.
Take, for instance, shoppers in China who lounge on the couches and climb under the covers for naps in the beds (photos at ChinaHush). Camilla Hammar, marketing director for IKEA in China, tells Advertising Age that stores there don’t just allow the try-it-out approach, they welcome it, embracing the idea that for the Chinese, shopping at IKEA can be an emotional experience. “It tends to initiate very romantic feelings,” she says. “The first time some couples start talking about getting married is in our showrooms. So that’s something we’ve tapped into.” And that’s why the store in Nanjing hosted three Swedish-style weddings for three couples as a PR event.
But it’s not just the Chinese who want to take advantage of the store’s sleeping—or wedding—accommodations. When Havas Media UK was looking for a way to promote the chain, they found a Facebook group called “I wanna have a sleepover at IKEA.” They latched on to the idea and organized “IKEA’s Big Sleepover” for 100 lucky customers.
And when couple in Maryland looked for a venue for their wedding in 2012, they chose the IKEA store where they had their first date. Another pair, this time in New Jersey, got married last year in an IKEA framing department, the same place where they’d met eight years earlier.
Even Hollywood knows that domestic magic can happen in IKEA.
(Key, “IKEA in China, ‘Our Home Is Your Home,” ChinaHush, July 27, 2012; “Happy to Bed,” Havas Media; “A Wedding in Aisle 3? Why Ikea Encourages Chinese to Make Its Stores Their Own,” Ad Age, December 10, 2013; David Boroff, “Couple Gets Married in Maryland IKEA,” New York Daily News, April 20, 2012; Eliza Murphy, “Couple Says ‘I Do’ in IKEA’s Framing Department,” ABC News, June 11, 2013)
10. And it can put your love to the ultimate test
Of course, adding IKEA to a relationship doesn’t ensure bliss—even in Sweden. A story in The Local last year recounts how police were called to a home in Strömstad by neighbors who were concerned about loud noises during the early morning hours. The authorities found that the “banging and screaming” was caused by a couple putting together a piece of IKEA furniture, and by their crying child.
There’s nothing like assembling furniture to check your love for your significant other. Well, maybe shopping for furniture can have the same effect. A trip to IKEA could be the perfect premarital outing for couples wanting to see if their love has what it takes to go the distance. Take a look at the video below to get an off-kilter view of the store that just might be “the number one place where couples realize they actually can’t stand each other.”
(“Police Called to Swedish Family’s IKEA Nightmare,” The Local, November 8, 2013)
[photo: “IKEA of Sweden,” by Håkan Dahlström, used under a Creative Commons license]