…to discuss some aspects of US business practices and global competition. At first this is going to seem like a product-placement ad, but bear with me.
What drives this sudden urge to change topic, you ask? Well, Thursday I went to IKEA. Yes, IKEA, the epitome of big box stores (although curiously, the one big box store that comes to mind that doesn’t compete with mom-and-pops as much as other big boxes, since how many mom-and-pops generally carry Swedish furniture?). I admit, their larger furniture pieces don’t do much for me – not really my preferred style – but they have plenty of other stuff to catch my eye: lighting, kitchenware, etc. And let’s not get started on the meatballs. However, what gets me the most excited about IKEA is (sadly) not what they sell, but how they design what they sell, and how they design their stores.
Let’s start with an example from their furniture: bookcases. You go to most any US-based furniture store and you can definitely find quality bookcases. So what catches my eye about IKEA’s? Well, most US homes have base moulding around the edge of a room. You know, that little strip of decorative wood at the base of the wall where it meets the floor. If you buy a US-made bookcase (or dresser, or anything meant to go against a wall), the back is perfectly flat, so when you slide it up against the wall, there’s always a quarter- to a half-inch of space behind it for stuff to fall into. Not IKEA’s bookcases! After purchasing our first bookcase there, I was thrilled to see IKEA cuts a little notch out of the base of the bookcase, about 4 inches high and a half-inch deep. Just enough to fit your moulding so the bookcase can fit flush against the wall. So simple, and yet so sheer genius. It’s the little things… and we’ll not even get into how well designed and illustrated their assembly instructions are and the overall quality, yet low prices of their products that keep customers coming back.
And now we’ll move on to the stores themselves. There have been a number of articles written about the psychology of the IKEA stores, such as here. A marketing strategy so well comprised it’s called the IKEA Effect: well-laid-out, winding paths take you through the entire store, as though you’re on an amusement park ride, ensuring you hit every department in an organized, orderly flow. Of course there are shortcuts around the store, but they’re not labelled, and they’re placed behind you, so they’re even harder to spot. Of course, there’s so much cool stuff there you may not want to. But once again, like the bookcase cutout, even with the stores it’s the little things.
For example, when exiting IKEA, unless you have giant pallets of merchandise and need the freight elevator, departing customers don’t use escalators; instead there are shallow moving ramps, and you can wheel your shopping cart/trolley on to the ramp to take your goods down to your vehicle (most IKEAs have underground parking). But wait, a wheeled cart on a moving ramp? You might need your full body weight to hold it in place – but not at IKEA. Instead, IKEA’s designers (who I surmise to be on par with Disney’s Imagineers) put grooved wheels on the shopping carts, and matching grooves on the moving ramps. It means nothing to you when you’re pushing your cart around the store, put as soon as you push on to one of those ramps, the wheels on your cart mesh into the grooves on the ramp and lock your cart in place for the trip down – you don’t even need to hold it with a finger! Once again, so simple, but so genius.
So where am I going with all this (aside for hoping from IKEA royalties for this post)? At a time when US businesses and stores are struggling to get customers and keep repeat customers, why haven’t we adopted not only IKEA’s specific innovations, but the IKEA mindset, to make things easier, simpler, more common sense? I don’t think citing profit margins is a viable excuse, as IKEA is hugely profitable. Are US companies not willing to take the leap of faith to execute such a plan? Is it American arrogance or laziness? I’m not sure, but I do know IKEA is a winning company that more US companies should be emulating, but they’re not.
I wonder if we have any more of those meatballs left in the fridge…?