Malmo Castle

A panic visit to IKEA and why I’m not a fan of the retail experience

When Apple launched their own brick and mortar stores several years ago, like many other curious visitors and potential customers, I thought their concept was blissfully brilliant. I’ve used Apple computers as my tools of choice for close to three decades. My main argument for paying the premium “Apple tax” has always been that their computers (and other gadgets) have facilitated my creative expression without getting in the way of it. Theoretically, you could run a marathon in wooden clogs. But who the fuck would want to do that?

It was easy to get seduced by the new Apple stores. Unlike any other computer retailer, they were sparsely furnished and roomy, beautifully lit and had giant hands-on tables for trying out the company’s shiny new computers and iPods. I loved the idea with the Genius Bar and the Theatre (found mostly in flagship stores) where Apple experts would demonstrate and teach how to use the company’s software. Interacting with Apple’s retail staff was usually pleasurable, if a bit weird in a “Truman Show” kind of way. The store’s locations were always great, too. Like the Apple store in the old post office on Prince Street and the glass cube on 5th Avenue in New York. Of course, as Apple’s hardware became increasingly popular, the stores got really crowded. Especially during peak shopping hours and throughout most of the holiday season. Overall, I think the retail experience has become increasingly unpleasant and burdensome. There’s too many people and way too many colors, signs and bling trying to grab my attention – and mall/store layouts that are convoluted and confusing to navigate through (obviously designed to keep you in the store as long as possible and thereby increase spending). I see it as a necessary evil when I’m “forced” to get something at a shopping center. Adn it only takes but a few minutes for me to feel mentally saturated from all the stimuli.

For several years now and on an almost daily basis, I’ve been an avid online shopper. I buy all kinds of stuff, including (but not limited to) food, clothes and shoes. I even buy furniture, cameras and related gear and book flights and make hotel reservations – all online and always at my convenience using just my fingertips. My family insists that I’m addicted to shopping at Amazon UK and to a lesser degree at Ebay UK. And they’re right. Unlike the stereotypical male, I actually enjoy shopping – as long as it’s online where the experience is both calmer, easier and faster. And even if I can’t feel the products being browsed physically, I think it’s a tremendous benefit to be able to read reviews from folks that have already purchased and tried them out. Given that many of Amazon’s reviews are bogus and probably written by the company selling them (or, if negative, by a competitor). Shop online long enough, I find that you’ll eventually hone in on which reviews are real and the fakes. It’s all part of the online research process that I’ve become accustomed to and enjoy. Admittely, I screw up once in a while. Maybe in a year I’ll have 3-4 returns. That’s all.

Yesterday, I had to return a few things to IKEA that Charlotte had bought for my new art space. It was Saturday and marvelous weather, so we figured most folks would be outdoors, enjoying what might just well be one of the last sunny days of the year. Nothing could have been wronger than that figuring. The store was so swarming with visitors, that I had to continually dodge, lunge and leap to make the slightest progress along the “snake” (IKEA-speak for the arrow marked path that wiggles customers through the store).

Ironically, the amount of visitors at IKEA yesterday afternoon was negligable when compared to just about any department store in Asia. But after the morning’s long run along an empty beach, I suppose I was taken aback by the slow-moving crowds at the furnishing giant’s behemoth warehouse. So, I had a mini panic attackk and just wanted to get out of there asap. For some reason, maybe after quitting coffee over 5 weeks ago, my sense of smell has improved considerably. And as I was passing through the various departments on my way to the cashiers (where Charlotte was waiting patiently for me), I sensed a strong odor of plastic and glue, as if much of the thousands of products displayed had just arrived from the factories without having been aired properly. It got me thinking about the scale of such operation, the turnover of products and all the micro-particles of solvents, paints and adhesive fumes that must be constantly flying around in the warehouse – and inhaled by the many young and old, unsuspecting visitors and workforce. I wonder what the lungs of those that work there look like after a few years. Where is Hans-Günter Wallraff, by the way?

About a decade ago, I spent 5-6 years consulting on various internal projects at IKEA, primarily in Älmhult, but also in Delft/Holland. I worked mostly as a creative coach helping out with communication and marketing campaigns. It was interesting, but in the long run, more taxing to my health than fiscally rewarding. I met the founder, Ingvar Kamprad on a few occasions. The guy had huge hands and a friendly smile.

I’ve always thought of IKEA as the McDonalds of the furniture world and that the humble tone they want customers to hear is a really genious marketing ploy aimed at adding artficial heart and warmth to their sales pitch. Kind of like the Ronald Mcdonald clown. At its core, IKEA is like any other multinational corporation, no matter how hard they try to humanize the brand with a sweet voice that sounds caring and thoughtful. The bottom line is and always will be; profit first.

On the one hand, it’s hard not to admire IKEA’s enormous success. They are by far the largest and most successful furniture compnay in the world. But when you step back a bit and allow yourself to contemplate the real price for their long-term goals and the extremely negative environmental impact their concept of, “providing a range of home furnishing products that are affordable to the many people, not just the few”, and how the implications of such a bold mission statement imposes enormous resource demands on the planet, it’s kind of disgusting. Read the lastest report from the United Nations on how bad shape the planet could be in as soon as 2040.

Even if we forget the massive amounts of fosil fuel needed to produce and transport the company’s wide range of offerings, most of the products from IKEA are in one way or another either made from or dependent on really bad-for-the-planet plastics, glues, paints and other toxic materials and ingredients. Then add that most, but not all, of the company’s 10,000+ products are designed and produced primarily for large-scale production (to keep prices low/increase profit profit margins) and that the company still doesn’t have a serious recycling policy in place, it becomes crystal clear that IKEA is not genuinly interested in being a Earth-friendly corporate citizen. The company’s management just doesn’t care enough to warrant changes that might decrease profitability and hinder their ambitious growth strategy. I’m not saying that Walmart, Amazon, ILVA or other furniture companies are better than IKEA. But it’s sad that the leader of the pack isn’t doing more to show sincerity and take leadership in environmental issues that impact us all. If the most well-known and profitable furniture company in the known universe can’t come up with a few truly innovative ideas to substantially reduce their pollution and increase sustainability, we’re pretty much screwed.

Like many consumers these days, we’re trying to make a consistent effort to refrain from shopping goods that haven’t been recycled or are manufactured in a way that is considerate of the planet’s limited resources and our environment. Yet I’m the first to admit there’s still plenty of room for improvement on our part.

Unlike IKEA and most other successful consumer-oriented brands that I can think of right now, only just a few companies like Patagonia and Apple own a clear vision and have taken a firm stance with their environmental policies. Their eco-friendly positioning adds value to their brand, their products and services as well as makes such good business sense that it’s apparently worth pursuing full-on. Incidentally, most of Apple’s efforts have been implemented under Tim Cook’s leadership. I don’t think Steve Jobs really gave a shit about the environment. And I don’t think that Ingvar Kamprad did, either. Not really. Not sincerely.

Where IKEA uses clever PR fluff and barely measurable, incremental efforts (in the grand scheme of things) to try to convince us they are in fact doing their veru best and really, really do care about the planet, Apple has been pushing the sustainability envelope for several years and just recently announced groundbreaking commitments that will lessen their environmental footprint even more – like improving the quality of their products so they last longer. So, yes I admire Apple for more than just the quality and thoughtfulness they put into their products. For a corporation, they have soul and heart.

We talk a about stuff like this at home. Not every dinner, but the topic of sustainability comes up now and again. And when it does, it often pertains to food and clothes. We travel a great deal for work (and pleasure) and there is no denying we should at least fly less if we really wanted to reduce our own carbon footprint. Being consequential isn’t easy for a mere consumer. That said, I think it’s important to be mindful about companies we buy from and the food we eat and clothes we wear. Hopefully Elle will absorb some of our discussions and create her very own mission statement.

Shot the beautiful Malmöhus Slott above yesterday afternoon. There’s something about that castle that I love. Maybe because it was where Elle and I spent so many weekends when she was a child. Maybe it’s because the structure itself somehow represents an echo of historic sustainability that resonates with me.

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