The Archive December 16, 2020

The Ikea Story: From Flat-Packaging Innovation to Global Ambassador of Sweden

Ikea Has Become a Global Darling by Being True to Its Heritage and Harnessing the Brand of “Sweden”

In 1840, Arthur Dillon — an Irish viscount — wrote the following in a book about his travels through Scandinavia: “The province of Smaland, that I now passed through, is the wildest to the south of the capital [Sweden’s Stockholm]. The farmhouses are few and mean, and the inhabitants appear generally poor … and for a hundred and twenty miles no town, and little worthy even of the name of a village, cheers the road.”

In his novel The Sea Runners, Ivan Doig describes a “crows’ winter” in Smaland thusly: “bleak, cold week on bleak, cold week …”

Smaland, in southern Sweden, is where Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad was born in 1926. Given how hard it must have been to make a living there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there must not have been any hobbyist furniture makers in Smaland.

Ikea’s success lies in the suggestion that you are building not just a bookcase but an entire lifestyle.

“Smaland is a bleak place, especially in winter,” Ikea archivist Juni Wannberg told Rachel Carlyle of the Sunday Express magazine, “and you couldn’t survive just being a farmer. You had to be always on the lookout for other ways to make money — making furniture on dark evenings, knitting or taking in guests. If you have to struggle to survive, you get creative with ideas.”

That’s a good story and it may be an essentially Swedish story. There are those who believe that there is something essentially Swedish — and, more specifically, essentially Smalandian — about the success of Ikea.

“The origins of Ikea seem fundamentally Swedish to me,” Yale University professor Susan C. Brantley told me in an email, “an interest in design, an interest in making nice things affordable for everyone, the ingenuity of saving money on transport by making you put your bookcase together yourself, family-friendly in that if your kids trash your furniture you haven’t made that big an investment. This all speaks to me of the Social Democratic values that dominated most of Sweden’s 20th century.”

And there are others who believe that Ikea’s success is not so much a case of essential Swedishness as essential branding.

“I don’t believe there is any such thing as ‘essential Swedishness,’” Gustavus Adolphus College professor Ursula Lindqvist told me in an email. “‘Swedishness’ is rather, for Ikea and other Swedish companies, an effective global branding tool, and Ikea has been particularly effective in exploiting and perpetuating prevailing nationalist discourses about Sweden and Swedishness abroad.”

The truth, as it so often is, might be somewhere in the middle.

Inexpensive Doesn’t Have to Mean Cheap

According to Kamprad, in an interview with Chris Cobb of the Ottawa Citizen, Ikea grew out of a question he asked himself when he was still in his teens.

“I … questioned why nice, well-made things were all very expensive but why inexpensive goods were poor quality,” Kamprad told Cobb. “There [were] no well-designed, well-made goods that were not expensive. I decided that everything we do with the company should be for people in general.”

Usually, Kamprad said, the aim of good design is higher prices. “For us it was the opposite. We tried to have a nice design at a lower price and I think we succeeded. We had many catastrophes on the way but generally we succeeded. So that’s the secret of our success: We have been able to combine a good design with low price.”

The unique features of shopping at Ikea that many Americans love all came about because of frugality.

What Ikea did first and best, Joanne Chianello of the Ottawa Citizen wrote, is convincingly combine thrift with stylishness: “Lots of stores shill inexpensive wares, but Ikea is diabolical in making us feel good about it. Maybe it’s the aesthetics — Ikea, like Target later on — inarguably helped bring better design to the masses.”

Icon Magazine, a leading design and architecture publication, controversially praised Ikea in 2005, saying, “If it wasn’t for Ikea, most people would have no access to affordable contemporary design. The company has done more to bring about an acceptance of domestic modernity … than the rest of the design world combined.”

Each New Product Starts with a Price, Not Demand

Stephen Lynch of Knight Ridder Tribune Business News describes a sort of reverse engineering that goes on at Ikea, whereby the company decides “what products it can churn out inexpensively, then [tries] to create a demand for them.”

Price is always the starting point, according to Ken Bernhardt, marketing professor at Georgia State University. “I think one of the most interesting things about their philosophy is to start out with a price that the consumer will want to pay and figure out a way to make it,” Bernhardt told Greta Guest of the Detroit Free Press. “That is completely backward from the way other companies do it.”

Ikea is obsessive about keeping costs down, according to Beth Kowitt of Fortune magazine. The unique features of shopping at Ikea that many Americans love — that a shopper takes unassembled purchases with him or her in flat packages and assembles them at home — all came about because of frugality.

“The company has … stripped out as much labor as possible from the system, pushing tasks that were once done by traditional retailers onto the customer,” Kowitt wrote. “Flat-packed furniture made it easier for customers to take purchases with them, cutting out the expense of stocking and delivery. (Ikea figured out flat packing in 1956, when a designer took the legs off a Lövet table to get it in his trunk.)”

The flat packs also allow “Ikea locations to stock most of its 10,000 products in the store instead of a warehouse,” according to Theresa Howard of USA Today. Ikea’s shipping and storage costs are “one-sixth of the industry standard,” she wrote.

Leaving Nothing to Chance — IKEA’s Research Approach

It may sound to some like Ikea is obsessing about costs at the expense of understanding its customers, but the opposite is true. Ikea works to know its customers well, Carlyle wrote. “[It does] an awful lot of research into us. The company owns a flat in nearby Malmö that it rents to families. It contains Ikea’s newest prototypes — beds, chairs and even a moving wall — and is wired up with cameras. Every Ikea store also arranges hundreds of visits every year to local families to see what their homes need. Piles of shoes and bags in the hall might indicate the need to design a hall cupboard; towels on radiators may spark a clever idea for a rack.”

This mania for consumer research might be the result of one well-publicized blunder that almost led to Ikea pulling out of the U.S. market, according to Kowitt. When Ikea made its first inroads in the states in the mid-’80s, it made no attempt to adapt its European products to the tastes and customs of this country. Its first store in Philadelphia was filled with beds and curtains and cabinets that weren’t designed for American domiciles or lifestyles.

Research is now at the heart of Ikea’s expansion. “The more far away we go from our culture, the more we need to understand, learn, and adapt,” Ikea researcher Mikael Ydholm told Kowitt. “Rather than focus on differences between cultures,” Kowitt wrote of Ydholm, “it’s his job to figure out where they intersect.”

Ikea seems to have convinced many consumers across the globe that building their own furniture is fun and kind of sexy, which is a feat on par with Tom Sawyer convincing his friends that it’s kind of fun and sexy to paint a fence.

“The thing we are supposed to hate most about Ikea is the reason many of us love it: self-assembly,” Jennifer O’Connell of the Irish Times wrote. “Psychologists have dubbed this ‘the Ikea effect’: the disproportionate affection we feel towards something we helped to create. The Ikea effect could be applied to lots of different phenomena: the success of Build-a-Bears (if you’re confused, ask the nearest five-year-old) or the reason our own children are always so much more appealing than everyone else’s.”

A single piece of Ikea furniture is never just a single piece of Ikea furniture, O’Connell wrote, because Ikea isn’t really trying to sell single pieces of furniture. It sells an aesthetic.

“Ikea’s success lies in the suggestion that you are building not just a bookcase but an entire lifestyle,” she added, “one in which all your well-dressed friends will regularly stop by your tasteful loft-style apartment to perch on your Bosse barstools and drink from your Rattvig champagne glasses.”

Swedish Ambassador to the World and a Fun, Affordable Shopping Experience

As much as Ikea attempts to comprehend and adapt to each culture it enters, there are many aspects of its stores that are stubbornly (not to mention, persuasively) Swedish. Or what non-Swedes think of as Swedish.

In her paper “The Cultural Archive of the Ikea Store,” Lindqvist wrote that Ikea traffics in “Swedephilia.”

Products bear Scandinavian proper names, she wrote, and modern, “cutting-edge products of Swedish design ingenuity are linked semantically with nostalgic items from Sweden’s agrarian heritage, such as lingonberries, meatballs, and wooden clogs.” The stores are painted in the colors of the Swedish flag, Lindqvist added.

We tried to have a nice design at a lower price and I think we succeeded.

Ikea products seem a natural extension of life in Smaland, and each locale’s one-direction layout — starting with the interactive model rooms and ending in the self-serve warehouse — makes it seem more like a museum than a furniture store, Lindqvist wrote.

It is Lindqvist’s belief that an Ikea store is “a living archive in which values and traits identified as distinctively Swedish are communicated to consumers worldwide through its Nordic-identified product lines, organized walking routes, and nationalistic narrative.”

She added, “The fact that Ikea makes this process fun, magical, enjoyable, and affordable for 583 million people a year, while perpetuating Sweden’s international image as a model democracy, makes Ikea arguably the most effective archive of national culture in today’s global marketplace.”

Selling Sweden or Swedishness?

So it seems that Ikea’s success can be attributed to a combination of being Swedish and selling Swedishness.

Photos: Shutterstock

What's Next?