Why I'm still being seduced by IKEA (but not the meatballs)

EDITOR'S BLOG: The Swedes may be tax exiles with mazes for stores, but they get my vote.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 20 Jul 2015

I should have no time for IKEA. I still bear stigmata scars in the middle of both palms from the assembly of dozens of beds (Bjorn), wardrobes (Benny), bedside tables (Agnetha) and loo brushes (Anni-Frid). But what choice does one have these days? Now Habitat has all but disappeared where do you go for that kind of stuff apart from John Lewis?  Argos… Dreams... World of Leather?

There’s no arguing IKEA is a brilliant success story. One in 10 Europeans is conceived in an IKEA bed. They now have stores in Egypt and Morocco and a total of 351 outlets    worldwide. They are responsible for 1% of the wood used commercially on the planet. Its global functional minimalism is a runaway success. As The New Yorker noted ‘IKEA constitutes a sort of borderless nation-state, with seats of power, redoubts of conservatism, second cities, imperial outposts, creative hubs, and administrative backwaters.’

As a nation of shopkeepers and one time top imperialists, why haven’t the Brits ever created such a powerful international retail brand? Lack of patience, ineptitude when venturing over the Channel and cashing out of the business before it reached any true overseas scale. A business that began in 1943 selling udder balm and reinforced socks, IKEA remains tightly-controlled by the family heirs of the founder.

They are disciplined, imaginative, clever - traits that are rarely seen together in retailers. They rarely let success go to their heads and over-reach. They also play the Scandy trust thing well. You sort-of really want to believe they strive to do the right thing. Ok, so the founder Ingvar Kamprad was once a Nazi as a youth, but he fessed up and tried to explain the context saying that it was ’the worst mistake of my life.’ You have to be at least intrigued by a guy who, despite being the fifth-richest in the world according to Forbes, still trousers salt and pepper sachets in restaurants and recycles his tea bags.

Frugal to the core, they appear to have used East German forced labour to produce their flat pack furniture during the 80s, but again they commissioned a report and did their mea culpas.  Their tax planning may be Byzantine - one can hardly blame them coming from Sweden where the revenue will strip you of everything given the chance - but their advertising and marketing is witty and effective.

So today we hear that they are about to invest a billion Euros in measures to combat climate change. IKEA is an old hand at the eco game. They are already heavily into renewable  energy having invested €1.5bn in wind and solar power since 2009. They have placed 700,000 solar panels on their own buildings, as part of a plan to produce as much renewable power as they consume at their stores and offices by 2020. Last year it bought two large wind farms in Illinois and Texas. It is highly unlikely to be getting into fracking any time soon.

Any company that calls a curtain rail holder Dignitat gets my vote. And, often, my business. Its blue bags have been used both to shift washing around our home and put kids car seats in the holds of 737s.

Yes, traipsing round their stores drives me crazy, so I live in hope that the recently-announced expansion of online sales will eventually put paid to that unwelcome ritual. But of one thing I am sure: they can keep the meatballs.

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