Collection No 1

Insights China

IKEA Reimagined

Chinese IKEA stores are much more than stores

Ms. Tang Da Ma is a 62-year-old widow looking for someone new to share her life with. At her age, finding that special person in bars, clubs, or noisy karaoke parlors just doesn’t feel right. This has driven her to look for love in what might seem like the strangest of places: IKEA. And she is not alone; a glance around the restaurant reveals a crowd of elderly men and women casually sipping their complementary coffee.

Walk into the Xuhui IKEA store in Shanghai any Tuesday or Thursday between the hours of eleven and five and you can’t miss them. Typically, they’ll have already signed up for the dating service via independent travel and activity advisors that tend to serve various neighborhoods in Shanghai. Part of their registration process is usually getting their customers to sign up for an IKEA credit card, although these activity organizers have no affiliation with IKEA.

This vibrant elderly social scene commands a group of 600 paying members aged as young as 45 up to 65 and beyond. As far as they are concerned, the free coffee, Scandinavian surroundings, and cool air conditioning are already the perfect setting for a very pleasant day out. They see themselves as IKEA customers, after all, and each have the membership card that provides them the free coffee. On occasion, they might even buy an item or two from the store to bring back home.

This has become a sensitive subject for IKEA. Its concern is that the crowd will loiter there all day, taking up the majority of restaurant seating that should be available for shoppers. Official notices have gone up in the restaurant asking these mature lovers to sit in a designated space. This initiative has caused aggravation among the group, who feel like they’re having too much attention focused on them and just want to be treated like every other customer.

Online complaints from “non-dating” customers are many, namely on Weibo. The common sentiment is one of initial surprise and later frustration at not finding a seat where they can eat their meal. The elderly daters are seen as cheap, abusing the facilities of the retailer and causing embarrassment to regular customers.

Officially, IKEA encourages its customers to feel at home in their restaurant and showrooms, and hope that spending time in their designed environments will inspire customers to do some interior decorating of their own.

Beyond the restaurant, Chinese customers of all generations have certainly taken up IKEA’s open offer of hospitality. They even change the sheets on display beds every two days because they get slept on so often. A stroll around the store can make one feel like a voyeur intruding into a series of intimate family moments being played out in carefully manicured rooms. Dad reads the paper as the youngest plays along on the floor carpet with his sister relaxing on the sofa as mom naps on the bed. It’s also not uncommon to stumble upon an impromptu photography session, with the latest furniture and store lighting providing the background for some inspired photography.

IKEA is very much aware of the specific issues that face its operations in China, namely the much larger scale of its customer base in this nation, and the environmental awareness that’s evident among its consumers. IKEA has extended open hours in their Shanghai and Beijing stores to cope with the high volume of customers. IKEA provides recycled packing materials in an effort to be more environmentally friendly. China is proving to be a promising area for growth for IKEA; the Swedish retailer stated in its 2011 yearly summary that China was its top purchasing nation in the world. Chinese consumers have clearly adopted IKEA. The question is, how much is IKEA willing to adapt to the unique challenges it faces in China?

Siddharta Lizcano

Siddharta helps organizations design for a better future using collaboration and design tools from start to finish. His areas of expertise and interest include workshops, design research, experience design, and fun times.

More Tong

More is a visual designer in frog's Shanghai studio. His typographic designs have been featured in Milk, behance, iDN and others. In 2012 More was recognized by the city as one of the top 100 creative talents in Shanghai.

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