Ikea and Ireland: a practical love affair

On its way to the blue and yellow superstore in Ballymun, the 13A (officially known as the “Ikea Bus”) passes three horses grazing lazily on a patch of grassland. At the entrance, a Swedish flag flutters in the breeze alongside the tricolour and opportunistic taxi drivers line up to ferry the furniture of impulsive bus passengers.

Inside, The Stereophonics’ Have a nice day provides a soft soundtrack to three Corkonian ladies who are perusing a kitchen/living room display unit. One of them is pointing at a collection of cream-coloured cookie jars: “they’re gorgeous, aren’t they?” she asks her companions, but gets no response. One of them is occupied with opening and closing the door of a bookcase to reveal again and again the flatscreen TV it conceals. “Look how it slides” she gasps in the direction of the third, who is regarding a navy shelving unit with a little suspicion; “I wouldn’t be mad about the colour”, she says, adding “it must be the fashion now”.

Around the corner, in the bathroom display area, a father has one hand curled around the bar of his shopping trolley and the other clasped to a lead attached to his toddler. Inside his trolley is a tiny sleeping baby lying flat on its back beside a large plastic toolbox. A few metres away a couple kissing by the fabric stand is separated by a middle-aged man in glasses, who strokes a piece of material and casts a thoughtful glance in the direction of the sofas in front of him.

It’s 3 pm on a Monday in June and Ikea is awash with customers. A cursory glance about the car park, which is decorated with pretty picnic table displays, reveals that shoppers have come from far and wide. At least one third have travelled from outside of Dublin. There are a particularly large number of registration plates from Cork, Kildare Longford, Meath, Kerry and Wexford and the accents inside the store represent this diversity. It’s far from just Irish accents that can be heard though. In the kitchen display area Polish children play with saucepans and mothers soothe their children with cooing foreign sounds.

How can it be that in Recession-depression Ireland, shoppers are coming in their droves to buy flat-pack furniture and frozen cinnamon buns? In the 12 months leading up to last August, Ikea Ballymun made a pre-tax profit of €11.4 million, making it one of the most profitable stores in Europe.

Ikea seems to be ergonomically designed to thrive in a recession. Its emphasis on accessibility and transparency as well as on low prices appeals to a public, which has lost faith in a politics dominated by wastage and concealment. In sum, Ikea defines “customer friendly”.

The entire store is constructed with the busy, multi-tasking customer in mind. Underneath the escalator at the entrance are a number of wheelchairs so that older and less mobile customers can navigate the store with ease. At every corner you can pick up a measuring tape, note-cards and pencils to keep track of your shopping. It would be easy to become frustrated trying to find your way through such an enormous store but measures have been taken for that eventuality too. You can find a map at every turn and each time you are about to enter a new section a sign helpfully vouches safe a missive along the lines of “By taking this shortcut you will miss workspaces, kitchens and dining.” (Heavens forbid.)

In Ikea, customer-friendly means “family-friendly”. On the ground floor, an enormous play area (“Smålan”) provides children with a huge quarter in which to expend their energy. It’s supervised and free. In the restaurant there are microwaves available for parents to heat up their babies’ bottles. Adjustable high chairs are available for toddlers of all sizes and there’s even a quiet nursing area for mothers who wish to breastfeed their babies in private. There’s a fold-out changing table in the downstairs toilet too.

There’s a great emphasis on communicating the manufacturing process to the consumer. In the living room display area for example, there is a large glass box housing an armchair. Attached to it are two mechanical levers which press again and again into the seat and back of the chair. Though it looks like some bizarre modern art fixture, the sign above it explains that this chair, like all sold in Ikea is undergoing quality testing: “Only if it withstands the pressure and still functions as well as before is it approved”.

As if furniture weren’t enough, the food is customer-friendly too. The “meatballs for all” mantra is sincere. You get a plate of 10 for €3.95 and for 50 cent you get a cup of coffee and a cinnamon bun. The soup of the day is less than two euro and you can be full up for less than a fiver. From the window of the restaurant, you can see what remains of the Ballymun tower blocks and on closer inspection, a cluster of mobile homes and caravans amidst some unwanted furniture strewn in a rubbish heap.

As they make their way to the tills, the Corkonian ladies stop to admire the pink and white orchidaceae and agree that with quality stalks like those they’re “dirt cheap”. They pick up a pot each and proceed to the checkout.