Monday, March 20, 2017

One Day In an IKEA Showroom

Notice the arrow on the floor so that, like a theme park, you
experience IKEA in the sequence its designers intended

Entering an IKEA showroom distinctly resembles entering an airport. After finding parking in the subterranean garage, so huge that you have to remember alphanumeric codes if you ever hope to find your car again, you have to ascend two different escalators just to reach the front door. These escalators pass multiple displays of featured product, lovingly arranged just like airports arrange displays from local history and tourist attractions.

This demonstrates just one way IKEA attempts to structure its store like a full-immersion experience. The faux-Scandinavian place names (the children’s playground is called Småland) and the notorious free meatballs remind customers we’re entering an embassy from another nation. And quite an embassy it is, too: if you don’t claim your free map at the door, you’ll certainly get lost. And also forget your intended purchases.

Because the IKEA showroom isn’t, fundamentally, a store. Within the first few displays, it becomes clear you’ve entered a museum. The massive, intricately curated displays of furniture, arranged to recreate examples of how you could arrange your room, don’t involve any stock you’d actually buy. IKEA doesn’t invite you into their store to shop, they invite you in to witness their multiple lush displays of simple-colored middle-class aspiration.

One display near the door, in the Living Room area, features a fake-leather couch facing a wall-mounted media center. The wood veneer on the media center is color-coordinated with the couch, with doors and sliding drawer pulls in contrasting colors. Upon the media center, a 70-inch television is running cupcake competitions from the Food Network, that orgy of bourgeois pretension. IKEA hopes to sell you a lifestyle.

A life completely free of clutter. Or, y'know, windows.
So you don't have to see the messy world outside.

In today’s economy, this makes their approach particularly insidious. Where Target or Walmart assumes their customers already have intended purchases in mind, and permit customers to create their own itinerary for picking their product, IKEA requires you to pass through their showroom in a particular sequence, Living Room to Workspaces to Dining Room to Bedroom, before making any purchases. You have to immerse yourself in the IKEA experience.

The furniture is all arranged to mimic how you’d arrange your house, in a perfect world free from children or pets or workaday fatigue. Beds are carefully made, with fluffy comforters and hospital corners. Dining chairs are pushed in. TVs are turned on, but not loud. Perfect people who don’t get tired or frustrated or take their surroundings for granted could live here. It jibes perfectly with progressive Americans’ idealized Scandinavia.

Despite what I said previously, the showroom has occasional items for purchase. Displays of small items—paper napkins, macramé accessory hangers, collapsible storage boxes—serve to occasionally remind guests they’re here to purchase lifestyle aspirations, not merely drool over them. I never saw anybody carrying anything from these displays, merely picking them up and examining them. But they aren’t really there for purchase, just as reminders.

At points, the showroom includes homages to the Tiny Home movement. Areas walled off from the showroom floor, but with open doors inviting exploration, show customers how to organize a bachelor pad in 270 square feet, or a young couple’s first home in 370 feet, using design elements available in-store. They advertize a beautiful world, completely free from laundry on the floor or dishes in the sink, a world we’d live in if we didn’t have, y’know, stuff.

Designers try to make IKEA shopping as much about life
as possible, down to the family photos on the headboard

After the showcases, you pass into a restaurant area. Like an airport, or Disneyland, IKEA expects customers to dedicate most of their day to experiencing the showcase, and recognizes that you’ll need sustenance. Unfortunately, my brain was already in shutdown mode, overwhelmed by crowds and colors and constant sensory input. I’d already found the floating shelves I wanted; I longed only to buy and escape.

So down the escalator, to the actual shopping space. Only after the halfway mark does the company even provide shopping carts. The shopping happens below the showroom, as though filthy lucre is closer to earth. And unlike the lavishly appointed showroom, the shopping space is remarkably sparse. The weekend I shopped, heavy weather had isolated distribution centers in the Northeast from retail spaces nationwide.

We emerge, blinking, into the sunlight, clutching most of our intended purchases, full of meatballs and lingonberry soda. IKEA has eaten an entire day. We’re bleary-eyed and confused, as the clutter-free showroom surrenders to the dirty, carbon monoxide-choked parking garage. We must leave the aspirations behind and return to life. But we have the map, and can return any time. IKEA, like Disney, is more real than mere reality.


  1. It sounds like your Ikea is different than ours in western Washington, where customers push carts through all the display areas, carrying a pad and pencil to record the large items they want to purchase and tossing the smaller items into their carts. Ikea's kooky names for things, by the way, aren't "faux-Scandinavian"; they're actual words from Nordic languages. Småland, for instance, is a region of Sweden.

  2. I probably will not ever return to IKEA. I resent being forced to walk miles and look at bunches of stuff I don't give a . . . toot . . . about before I can buy what I want. Ridiculous. Thanks for the post.