The IKEA brand – is it TOO Swedish?

Ikea is an impressive brand.  It’s the world’s largest furniture retailer, it’s privately held, there are more than 300 stores in 37 countries, and nearly half a billion unique visitors hit the website in the last year.

Perhaps more impressive is the way the company is marketed and how the brand is communicated.  Ikea has embraced the direct marketing model (the Ikea catalog is published in 27 languages and accounts for something like 70% of the company’s total marketing budget,) and great pains are taken to sell the Swedish-ness of the company.

The stores themselves are bold blue buildings with yellow lettering and highlight features.  These are the national colors of Sweden.  The furniture names are based on a disciplined system, and feature words and names of decidedly Nordic/Scandinavian provenance.  Names like Besta, Ektorp, Framsta, Inreda, Karlstad, Pragel and Varde.  The stores even feature restaurants and food markets serving Swedish meatballs, cinnamon rolls (whose aromas usually flood the checkout areas,) and lingonberry jam.

But being soooo Swedish can have its drawbacks, too.  For instance, most Ikea stores feature a “one-way” meandering layout, forcing the consumer to go through virtually every section of the store just to find his or her desired items.  There are shortcuts, but people rarely use them.  Most American retail consumers prefer aisles and rows to quickly find what they came for.  Further, the furniture itself is almost always a self-assembly.  This is to keep costs down and to improve the complex inventory stocking process – most Ikea stores are simply warehouses with a nice second floor.  Again, quite different – most American furniture stores deliver your furniture and assemble it for you.

The real doozy in Ikea stores comes when you try to check out. Most shopping carts feature two fixed rear wheels and two swiveling forward wheels, which allow you to “steer” in any direction you choose. The shopping carts at Ikea feature four swiveling wheels, which means that as you navigate the wiggly winding path the store forces you to take through the maze of Nordic-named furniture, the cart is zigging and zagging into merchandise displays and even fellow shoppers. Then, as you self-load your 150-lb bookshelf, the cart becomes nearly impossible to maneuver, simply growing a mind and a navigation system of its own.

I submit that Ikea is one of the most consistently delivered and managed brands.  But in a few cases, in a few countries, they could make intelligent and insightful compromises to improve the consumer experience.  Starting with less-Swedish shopping carts.