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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 12:38 GMT 13:38 UK
Ikea's enormous niche market

By Patrick Jackson
BBC News Online

Ikea has just turned 60 and one has to assume all the birthday presents came in handy boxes and took no time at all to assemble.

Steve Barrett wedged into his driving-seat by a sofa
Steve: "I actually come here for the meatballs"
The home furnishings giant is, after all, "always keen to banish as much air as possible from the packaging", as its website explains.

Sharing the same birthday as Mick Jagger is certainly cool but one suspects the Swedish sexagenarian's charms extend to something more solid.

Something flat-packed and stylish, to judge by what customers told BBC News Online at one UK store - though it may not be everyone's ergonomic cup of tea.

"If you have some money, you don't need Ikea," is how Cyrille, a French friend and somewhat reluctant visitor to the company's stores in Brussels where he lives, put it to me recently.

Whatever it is that Ikea does, it seems to do it very well, boasting an annual turnover worldwide of 12 billion euros.

As cities swell and people find themselves having to fit into ever smaller niches, it seems to have tapped very nicely into the market of furnishing solutions for small spaces.

Flatpack culture

I do not know if the sofa Steve Barrett collected at Ikea's Thurrock store this week would go through many front doors if it arrived fully assembled, but even in flatpack form it fairly took over his car.

Sonia Matthew
Sonia: It's all flatpack now
Steve, who has a property company in London, recalls the impact Ikea made when it arrived in Britain - now its second-largest market in the world - back in 1987:

"The designs were that much more new than your general stuff that everyone had got used to. It was a very suburban type of design, it was that little bit more clean-lined."

For Graham Henderson, who was at Thurrock to pick up crockery for his catering business, the Swedish company means "contemporary furnishings at very good prices".

While he finds the costs competitive, he stresses: "You've got to like it to buy it".

Readymade furniture is well and good, Graham adds, but flatpack versions are "not a problem, really".

"In this day and age you can't get anything readymade - everything is flat-packed," according to customer Sonia Matthew, who works for a leading charity.

She says she likes the modern styles at Ikea while its flat packs - in her experience - tend to be easier to assemble than those of competitors.

'Not elegant'

Emma Brown, a nurse and customer of 10 years' standing, concurs over a crammed trolley full of flatpack furniture.

Emma Brown
Emma: A sense of achievement when it's all assembled
"They are very easy to put together compared to other places - and they don't fall apart."

There is, she adds, a "sense of achievement" from the assembly though she admits she would probably go for readymade given the choice.

Over in Brussels, my friend Cyrille sees little fun in the time spent in putting together furniture.

As a young sound engineer, he has, however, been buying "meubles a monter" from Ikea as he sets up in business.

Given the choice, Cyrille would buy from antique shops or somewhere else nearer to home in the city as opposed to the Swedish company's out-of-town stores.

While he agrees that the design is good at Ikea, it is "not elegant", as he puts it.

Clearly there is a question here of personal taste but, to be fair to Ikea, if its designers are not appreciated by everyone, it does at least do great honour to their art by constantly linking their individual names to the products for which they are responsible.

The global block of flats

How big Ikea has grown was brought home to me this New Year's Eve as I arrived for a holiday in Moscow, an old haunt.

Ikea, Thurrock
The stores are a familiar sight outside Europe's big cities
It had less to do with the unavoidable sight of its flagship Khimki store along the motorway from the airport than with the festive red napkin I had stuck in my pocket back in England for a nascent cold.

Turning up at a house party in the city centre, what should I see scattered among the shot glasses and plates of zakuski but the very same Ikea serviettes with their distinctive pattern.

"Global village" was the phrase which came to mind amid mixed emotions: amusement at coming upon something so familiar in a faraway place, and some melancholy at this globalisation of once distinctive cultures.

Moscow, where life for most is largely about getting an apartment or making a tiny one somehow inhabitable, is a case in point for Ikea's stated goal of satisfying "people with many different needs, tastes, dreams, aspirations... [sic] and wallets".

Where only a few years ago Western-style fast food was all the rage, the kind of fast furnishing Ikea seems to represent is now a new interest which seems increasingly within reach.

One observation Steve Barrett makes at the company's UK stores is that they "always seem to be full of pregnant women".

Given Ikea's determination to find furnishings for any living space no matter how tiny, I would not be surprised if they have a designer working this minute on a nice pre-birth set of groovy cushions for baby.

Ikea founder worried over growth
03 Jan 03  |  Business
How Ikea won over the Brits
13 Jun 02  |  Business
Ikea wows the Russians
22 Feb 02  |  Business

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