In seven decades, Ikea has spread to 41 countries, shaping the globe's domestic habits. But looking closer at the Swedish standard also shows national cultural differences holding strong.
What is the most printed publication after the Bible and Mao’s Little Red Book? The IKEA catalogue. That's right. About 3.9 billion Bibles have been printed since 1815, more than 900 million copies of President Mao Zedong’s Quotation are circulating in China and elsewhere. Beginning August 19, 220 million catalogues of the Swedish furniture retailer will be dropped in mailboxes all across the world.
Roughly speaking, one billion people will have within reach images of these perfectly "lived-in" homes, filled with just-boisterous-enough children, that classy-without-letting-it-show look.
And yet there is so much we don't know: just last month, on July 28, IKEA celebrated its 70th birthday. In the greatest discretion. No salmon parties were held, no worldwide advertising campaigns were broadcasted to glorify its 342 stores across 41 countries.
IKEA keeps a low profile. True, in the past months the neat image of the 70-year-old Nordic giant was tarnished by several scandals: French employees who say they were spied on have taken their case to court; Chinese customs authorities found fecal bacteria in chocolate-caramel crisps sold in 23 countries; eventually, beef-meat was very discreetly replaced by horse-meat in the “Köttbullar” – the famous meatballs to dip in cranberry jam that bring so many to the store at lunchtime.
In September 2012, M Le Monde's weekly magazine asked IKEA to use its data in order to analyze lifestyle changes around the world. The pieces of information eventually obtained are a remarkable reflection on our globalized world. Along with Facebook, IKEA is the only economic agent that knows our private lives so well. But, unlike the social network that makes money thanks to the lexical analysis of the writings of its billion members, IKEA is a "bricks-and-mortar" furniture seller.
First observation: just as the Great Wall of China is visible from the Moon, IKEA has already left its mark on earth. In 2012, about 700 million human beings came to these famous blue buildings with their yellow logo that you see from the highway.
Standards of cheap and chic
A truly efficient marketing strategy: affordable prices, abundant tricks, uncluttered style. Their 9,000 home products revolutionized the young and modern living in the late 20th century. IKEA is then a real inspiration, but wouldn’t it be more accurate to talk about influence, as the group seems to have defined a “standard” way of living, a sort of “casual, cheap & chic” worldwide norm?
“It’s a tough question”, admits Kristina Petersson-Lind, IKEA design director. “It is true that our stores spread our relaxed lifestyle. We inspire and influence people.”
Within a few decades, wide entrances, airy living rooms and open-plan kitchens – the fluidity associated with Swedish design - became international standards. Some pieces of furniture are now iconic. Without being aware of it, we perfectly know the names of Scandinavian men (all the desks and chairs’ name), of Swedish islands (garden furniture), of Nordic rivers (bathroom accessories) and insects (kids products)! One in ten Europeans would have been conceived in an IKEA bed. Our DNA and the Swedish brand are intertwined, indeed.
However, we do not ride towards the Mecca of low-cost furniture to satisfy the same needs. From Dalhmut – its headquarters hidden in the heart of the forest – the group distinguishes four types of international customers: people from emerging countries and the others; city people and country people. In a metropolis, city-dwellers seem to live in the renowned village praised by publicists. “From Shanghai to New York, we perceived similar aspirations, the same way of consuming news, a growing concern for environment, for the past three or four years a strong creativity need probably linked to the development of the digital life and the same need to live well in less space,” Petersson-Lind says.
In these big cities, the firm has discovered a desire of people to distance themselves from the mass-consumption society, “especially in Western countries.” The global financial crisis accelerated this move: “Consumers invest in what is more important to them. Most of the time, it’s not goods, but a better way of living,” she adds.
In the emerging countries, the Swedish firm focuses on “consumers reaching a higher standard of living.” Owning goods is then far from being a problem: “In Russia and China, our clients want to show they can buy,” Petersson-Lind explains. Actually, once the shopping is done, “the home organization emphasizes the new acquisitions.”
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In Guangzhou, China - Photo: Chintunglee / GNU
Thus, on one side of the planet you tend to buy pieces of furniture to conceal them, on the other side you buy to show them. In these societies undergrowing rapid economic growth, more and more women come to the Swedish stores alone – a new trend that might have to do with their recent emancipation as well as the increasing number of divorces.
The globalization game with four happy families... Is it that easy to decipher us – all summarized in equation with four unknowns: city, countryside, old countries, young economies? Well, no! The devil is in the details and our local characteristics are both “precious assets,” according to the Swedish group, as well as a major challenge. To the Swedish firm’s surprise, American and British people did not give up the sitting rooms that are of little use and disappeared from most of the European homes in the 1990’s. They buy a lot of big pieces of furniture to arrange, “not that Americans are overweight" - Petersson-Lind, like most Swedes, is very polite – but “because they look for more comfort.”
There is no denying that IKEA has a flair for business. Since it ventured outside Sweden in 1963, the group has been on the lookout, drawing its inspiration from local characteristics to enrich its catalogue. When they settled in Japan in 2006, “they discovered people of different generations living under the same roof, which is not the case in Sweden.” Japanese catalogues now contain pieces of furniture mixing generational universes (casual and design) in one room. Sometimes local crazes even set the tone for the rest of the world. In this way, Italian shoe-lovers led the way for the Swedes - less known for being fond of shoes – to propose pieces in cupboards for shoes that are “now sold everywhere,” Petersson-Lind notes.
In fact, very few products are locally adapted, except to fit standard sizes (doors, household appliances), norms (metric system, safety, electricity) and the inhabitants’ morphology (Japanese people are smaller than Norwegians). IKEA then proposes an almost globalized offer. And that is how the magic happens. Without really analyzing it, the firm notices small details that make us who we are… a nice twist to globalization and the prevailing standardization.
Bedroom geopolitics is for instance rather complex. Americans want soft mattresses, Russian hard mattresses, and Asians extra-hard mattresses. The French – along with Spanish – hold the record for the narrowest beds, as well as the record consumption of anxiolytics (it was proved that you sleep less well when you are too tight!). Italian, American and Asian couples make themselves comfortable in Morphee’s arms (bedsize from 160 to 180 cm), whereas Germans and Nordics often chose more innocent twin beds.
As for darkness to sleep, it is not a universal need. People living close to the poles, used to the midnight sun, do not put obscuring curtains on their windows, whereas the ones living in over-lit cities adopted them to feel the taste, though artificially, of a desired black night. However, in every country, parents install blinds in kids room – an elaborate tactic to make their nights last longer.
When it comes to tidying up, our Swedish retailer-psychologist is positive, human beings have trouble throwing away things they no longer use. As a logical consequence, we are desperately looking “for solutions to store everything” everywhere, the director explains, which led IKEA to imagine drawers under and above stairways.
The North and the South are divided about the bathroom. The shower curtain is useful for two reasons: it blocks water and creates an intimate cocoon hiding you from indiscrete looks. Nordic countries are closed to this later aspect: Norwegians, Danes , Icelanders, Finns are more likely to install see-through curtains. Moreover, Dutch and Swedes buy far fewer curtains for their windows, maintaining this openness to others that was sometimes mistaken for easy morals in the 1970’s. On the contrary, Britons love small curtains, French, Spanish and Italian people prefer them white.
Next country to conquer
In front of this cultural diversity, IKEA does not seem to lose its capacity for adaptation. Stronger than the crisis, the group keeps on growing. Before 2020, the retailer wants to see 40 little yellow and blue flags flying in France alone. After China and Australia, India should be the next conquered country.
Any risk of growing too much? “We’ve not reached this point,” the director answers.
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Photo: Calvin Teo
Still, recent issues of Live: Homes and Ideas – the magazine for the members of the “IKEA family” – praises collage, diverse usage, mixing of styles: In short, plenty of advice so that our homes are not meant to be so Swedish anymore. This is meant as a way to counter the certain weariness that threatens the 40-somethings who were spoon-fed with Gravalax, the famous sauce for salmon popularized by IKEA. At the same time the firm tries to differentiate itself from the host of rivals that have stepped into the breach of discount design in the past decades.
To stay in the game, IKEA tries to stay one step ahead. How will the world look next year? It is not a surprise, the world is becoming old and... IKEA feels it. This year’s flagship piece - on the 2013 catalogue front page - is the updated edition of the 1951 Strandmon, a comfortable grandpa-armchair.
Other trends: as any complex mammal, the homo numericus wants to reconcile the irreconcilable – “conviviality and connection.” The firm is thus reflecting on a way to adapt our homes to the seven billion cellphones and millions of tablets that have arrived. How do you make these new family evenings, where everyone has a screen in his hands, more harmonious?
Sometimes IKEA fumbles, blame it on these cultural features. Indeed, in Asia, the assembly instructions are not sufficiently understandable. Each ideogram has a meaning in the Chinese alphabet. Swedish ideograms would not be visual enough.
In the Middle East, the firm's direction was forced to publicly apologize last year for removing any feminine representation in the catalogue designed for Saudi Arabia. The attempt to play to local standards was especially offensive back in Sweden, a world leader in women's rights. According to the latest news, women will be back in the 2013-2014 catalogue, standardized again, and distributed all over the world.