He gave the world the double ended Allen Key, the “Billy” shelves (white, black and white, ash-tree-veneer brown) and Köttböllar with cranberries. No obituary on Ingvar Kamprad’s passing misses counting the things that conquered our homes and embedded themselves deep in our collective consciousness. Little attention is, however, paid to the psychological mechanisms that are the foundation for IKEA’s incredible success.
Kamprad’s rise to becoming one of the most impressive entrepreneurs in the retail business, comparable only to the Albrecht brothers and their Aldi discount supermarkets, was due to his rewriting of the rules for an entire branch of industry. Prior to IKEA, buying a piece of furniture was a multi-decade purchase decision; the furniture purchased was designed by specialists to last for centuries. Naturally, the decision necessitated a thorough consultation with an expert. Months could go by before the piece of furniture was delivered.
And then came IKEA. All furniture was immediately available in the self-service warehouse. Even bulky furniture, such as couches, was packed in multiple boxes and could be taken directly home, where one could assemble it oneself with a minimum of necessary tools, with the Allen Key being the central element for success. The resulting piece of furniture might not be destined to last for life, but instead for a short phase of it.
The most important phase, which has now already driven generations into furniture stores, has been the kids fleeing the nest. IKEA was the friend of the youth, symbolizing the launch into independence for young people who wanted to leave behind the narrow-mindedness of their parents’ world. In a sense, the furniture chain became the interior designer for the German Baby Boomer generation, for people who wanted to leave behind the “Gelsenkirchener Baroque”, instead searching out a very different design for life, less pre-determined by the outside world: you can construct your life yourself and, if necessary, deconstruct it again.
IKEA can also claim to have democratized design. The altruistic feelings – IKEA is your friend and it ensures that you, also, can have beautiful furniture – are an essential part of the brand’s core.
The fourth factor, finally, is the furniture store’s focus on the family theme. For many parents with children, a trip to IKEA replaces a trip to an amusement park – the little ones encounter fantastical (living)spaces, countless opportunities to touch and test things, as well as family friendly opportunities for eating.
This glorified image is, in total, so strong, that it drowns out the downsides of this success. And there exist quite a few of those. However, despite being well-known from public discussion, they have clearly not damaged the brand’s core. Not the fact that furniture pieces have become, to put it in exaggerated terms, disposable articles. Not the fact that many IKEA designs skate dangerously close to being knock-offs. Nor the issue of the company making even Amazon look like the pinnacle of giving when it comes to paying taxes.
In conclusion, one can risk making the following prediction: Our children and grandchildren will also be frequenting the blue furniture palaces, will be glancing through the comic-like construction manuals, and will, with a fervor for action, be reaching for the Allen Key.
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