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What the fika: the strange hype around Ikea NZ

Swedish economist Kjell Nordström is a serious guy, a writer and researcher into the internationalisation of companies and the global market.

Yet even he’s writing about Ikea, the flatpack furniture and home furnishings company which is now the biggest retailer of its type in the world.

"I hate Ikea. I really hate Ikea so much,” Nordström says. “But it's still where I'm going on Saturday. And the next week.”

The store he loves to hate.

Ikea announced the week before Christmas that it would be announcing in January that it was coming to New Zealand. Last Friday the announcement duly came: it was coming to New Zealand, although details of when or where are pretty sketchy. “In the next few years”, and “somewhere in Auckland”. 

Despite the complete lack of detail, there’s been heaps of media attention in New Zealand, a bit of it cynical but much excited. There were no fewer than six stories just in the lead-up to the press conference - previewing what might happen.

Retail magazine The Register summed it up: “The wait is over: Ikea to launch in New Zealand.”

Though we don't know much more than that. Though there will definitely be meatballs on the menu at a future Ikea cafe.

A TV news cameraman films... an Ikea sofa. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Dozens of stories over the last month are in addition to more than a decade's worth of “It’s coming, no it’s not” coverage.

There’s even an Ikea NZ Facebook page with 20,000 followers, started by New Zealander Justin Flitter in April 2009 with the main purpose of urging Ikea to ignore New Zealand no longer. The page was set up a year after the environment court turned down an application to put an Ikea store in the Auckland suburb of Mt Wellington, saying it would cause too many traffic problems.

Since then there have been numerous rumours on the site, plus an ‘I want Ikea’ online petition, and lots of photos of cool furniture and meatballs.

“We are not even in the pipeline for Ikea,” wailed one follower a few years ago. “Why? Even Greece has one. C’mon Ikea ... We are humans.”

Guys, it’s just a shop.

Ben Goodale is an Auckland-based marketing expert. He says the Ikea approach is, like, branding genius.

"I went to the opening of their Brent Cross store in London 28 or 29 years ago. I remember going along; there were balloons, queues, and that giant buzz. I was a 20-something-year-old queuing up to go to a furniture shop, and I can’t even explain why."

The hype is inflated in New Zealand because most big international chains don't get this far. To the Ikea buzz you have to add the excitement when, for example Top Shop, H&M or, most recently, Krispy Kreme doughnuts launched here.

"There has been this big fuss about them coming here and they are going to open one shop, maybe a second one in the South Island. But it’s a flag on a map. Before, we made apologies for them for why they weren't coming here - because we are so small. Now we are grateful."  

Perhaps another lure comes from the fact that New Zealanders travel so much, and many will have their own Ikea experience. I bought a bed from an Ikea store in France when I first moved away from home into my first grown-up studio apartment in the early 1980s. It was a fold-out foam mattress with a bright blue cover. I still remember it.

My business journalism colleague Bernard Hickey, travelling in Europe at the moment, sent me pictures from his family’s visit to Ikea in Stockholm.

Photo: Lynn Grieveson
Photo: Madeline Grieveson

According to ikea.com, “IKEA started as an idea in the woods of southern Sweden more than 70 years ago”. The idea came from 17-year-old carpenter, Ingvar Kamprad, in 1943, and Ikea has been the world’s largest furniture retailer since at least 2008. Hej!

Actually, you’ve been able to buy Ikea stuff in New Zealand for ages, just not from an Ikea-branded store. I know because I got a few pieces, including the iconic Billy bookcase, for my son’s room only last year. The stuff is white and useful and the instructions are so good a pair of impractical media types could put the furniture together with only the odd bit of help from a screwdriver. Really.

The official invite for the “we’re coming - sometime” event at the Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront on Friday was as breathless as the coverage:

“Fika will be served among an exhibition of iconic IKEA range, showcasing our Democratic Design principals where good design is the perfect combination of form, function, quality and sustainability all at an affordable price”.

Fika is morning or afternoon tea, by the way, including meatballs, though for the New Zealand post-breakfast market they were made into burgers. And there was lots of tastefully arranged furniture.

Not Jacinda Ardern, not Caroline Wozniacki... Ikea. Photo: Nikki Mandow

The press conference attracted the sort of media attention more normally reserved for celebrities, or sometimes politicians. Lights, cameras, action. Lots of people with tags.

Earlier, I even had a PR person put the phone down on me when I asked too many questions - a reaction normally used only by politicians and dodgy business types.

Still, Ikea has its detractors. Type ‘I hate Ikea’ into Google and you get 28 million hits, though that sinks to 12,700 if you put inverted commas around the words. There’s an unloved ‘I hate Ikea’ Facebook page, an article from the Huffington Post and various YouTube posts. There's also a song called “I fear Ikea” by a band called the Lancashire Hotpots, which features the catchy chorus line: “I don’t want a bookcase called Billy or a table called Sven.”

Go listen.

Change the Google language tag to Swedish (‘Jag hatar Ikea’ - 2.5 million hits) and translate the results back into English and you get the quote from Swedish economist Kjell Nordström I used at the beginning of the article.

Nordström compares Ikea with budget European airline Ryanair - the carrier everyone hates, and everyone flies with.

Ikea market potential development manager Will Edwards says the “love to hate” thing might stem from the fact that people find themselves buying more stuff than they thought - and swear to avoid the store in future.

“Customers are shocked at the width and depth of the offering and then shocked by the prices. You leave with so many things and you are asking yourself ‘How did that happen?’ You say you are never going to go again, then in the near future you find yourself back.”

Ikea market potential development manager Will Edwards (left), with senior colleague Jesper Brodin. Photo: Nikki Mandow

Goodale says the love em, hate em thing is more likely to be felt in Sweden, where a trip to Ikea could feel like a cliché. In New Zealand we lose the loathing part; we just have the love, he says.

"New Zealand is such a beautiful country, but there aren't many different things to do here. Ikea is like a theme park; it’s a place you spend time. 

"The current marketing buzzword is CX, customer experience. People act as if it's just been invented. Ikea has been doing it for decades."

Four things you might not know about Ikea:

- The average visit time is four hours. FOUR HOURS. That means if someone is just popping in for a Billy bookcase, someone else has to be there all day; 

- A new Ikea store tends to have a positive impact on other retailers located within a kilometre or so, whether they are competitors or not. Some estimates say Ikea can lift surrounding retailer sales by as much as 20 percent; 

- Ikea is so successful it is thought to ask government or local authorities for its own motorway junction when it considers building a new store;

- Ikea only launched in India in August last year, after 12 years of planning. Given India has 1.35 billion people, that could make us feel smug. The downside is that Ikea's first store opened a full six years after it made its first announcement. Kiwis, don't hold your breath.

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