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Home, Swede home: A visit to IKEA's birthplace before its arrival in Winnipeg

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ALMHULT, Sweden -- It's the most anticipated Swedish invasion in Winnipeg since Anders Hedberg, Ulf Nilsson and Lars-Erik Sjoberg arrived in town to play for the Jets in the mid-1970s.

Nearly 200 construction workers are pouring concrete, welding elevator shafts, building staircases and wiring the electrical to ensure IKEA's giant 390,000-square-foot store will be ready in time for a late-November or early-December grand opening.

The iconic Swedish furniture maker will be the focal point of a 1.5 million-sq.-ft. retail development near the intersection of Sterling Lyon Parkway and Kenaston Boulevard in southwest Winnipeg.

It's a massive project and one that is expected to have a monstrous impact on the city's retail scene. Winnipeggers have been clamouring for IKEA to build in the Manitoba capital for a couple of decades, and if you think about the reception newcomers such as Old Navy, Forever 21 and even the refurbished Bay store at Polo Park Shopping Centre received in recent years, the welcome for IKEA will be off the charts.

But there's only one way to get a true sense of what is in store for Winnipeggers come this Christmas season, and that's to go to Ñlmhult, Sweden, where IKEA was born more than a half-century ago.

Representatives from IKEA gave several Winnipeg journalists a tour of its facilities in early July. We were taken to its first-ever store, its product-testing facility, its museum, its culture centre and its gigantic, state-of-the-art warehouse. Along the way, we learned about its business strategies, its corporate culture and how to drive volume.

The focal points of every IKEA store are the display rooms for living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. The creations of local in-house designers are changed and updated regularly to inspire shoppers and give them ideas how they might reconfigure their own homes. They're even geared to specific demographics, such as single women living in a 600-sq.-ft. apartment to a family of four living in a spacious 3,000-sq.-ft. home to everything in between.

The rationale is it's one thing to see a chair in isolation in a showroom; it's quite another to see that same chair in its natural environment, surrounded by a big-screen television, a couch, a bookcase, a magazine rack, some lights, a few plants and an area rug.

Every room is set up down to the most minute detail, such as books on the shelves, pillows on the couches, towels on the racks, plants on the windowsills, hooks on the walls, curtains and fruit in a bowl.

"(The rooms) are to give some inspiration to the customer, home-furnishing knowledge and lots of tips and ideas in the home that you can bring back and make yourself. You can find the right space for your TV... what should the height be for the kitchen cabinets? What kind of lighting do you need?" says Mats Svensson, who served as the tour guide through the company's first store in Ñlmhult.

"The customer is more inspired. When you put everything together in one room, it gives them lots of ideas and inspiration how to furnish their homes. You can see everything together."

And if you're not sure what goes with what, IKEA has a team of experienced designers who can match your ideas and budget with their products.

There is most definitely a method to the madness in virtually everything IKEA does. The store layout, for example, is designed such that customers have to walk through virtually the entire store even if they just want to buy a single item. While you wend your way through, you may see one -- or more likely several -- other items you hadn't even thought of buying before you arrived.

Then as if by magic, they'll appear in your shopping cart or in the giant yellow bag you picked up at the entrance.

"There are only a couple of shortcuts (in the store). We recommend the customer take the long, natural way," Svensson says.

IKEA's store layout is very similar to what the grocery industry uses, putting staples such as milk and bread at the back and sides of the stores, forcing customer to walk by countless other products and increasing the likelihood of impulse purchases.

Walking through IKEA's display rooms will appeal to your senses, too, says Robert Warren, an entrepreneurship professor at the University of North Dakota.

"That gets you more in the mood to buy," he says. "IKEA has really turned shopping into more of an event. But because everything is on display, you can easily see it in nice surroundings, and there's a nice flow. Traditional furniture stores don't have the same flow."

Keeping you in that buying mood is one of the main reasons IKEA has a massive cafeteria-style restaurant in each store. (The Winnipeg location will have a capacity of 500, making it one of the most crowded places to eat in town.)

Swedish meatballs and other meals can be had for just a few dollars each, but IKEA officials are quick to note the restaurant isn't a loss leader. In fact, due to the massive volume, it's a profit centre all on its own.

"It's cheaper for (customers) to have their lunch here than to buy their food, put it on the stove and make it at home," says Svensson.

"(The restaurant) is very important. You cannot make business on an empty stomach. You need to have some refreshment in between. The restaurant is always located in between the (display rooms and the shop floor) so you can take a break here and plan your purchases."

There's no question IKEA's sweet spot is young people moving out of their parents' houses. They may have just taken their first "real" job and they need to outfit their apartment or starter home with a wide variety of furnishings -- especially with items they weren't able to pilfer from their parents.

But IKEA has also gone to great lengths in recent years to attract mid-range and high-end customers so it can be a destination location throughout their entire buying life cycles.

In fact, if you're really shooting for the moon, you can have IKEA's experts design something specifically for your home.

While IKEA furniture has evolved with the times and trends over the years -- some would argue it has been setting those trends -- functionality is at the root of everything that hits the shop floor, according to Lars Engman, legendary IKEA product manager for more than three decades until he retired a couple of years ago.

"You need to sit, eat and sleep. (Functionality) is so important for all of us. You must be able to use the piece of furniture. A chair is a chair; you must be able to sit on it and be comfortable, then you can start to work with the forms. Trends are always coming and going. Sometimes it's square, sometimes it's round, sometimes it's white, sometimes it's black," he says.

Necessity can also be the mother of invention at IKEA. A case in point was Engman's own home a quarter of a century ago when his young daughter had a group of friends over to -- what else? -- jump on the furniture. Of course, it wasn't long until some very expensive couches and chairs were broken.

"Slowly, I started to think, 'We must be able to do children-friendly sofas without hard corners, and you must be able to take away the cover and wash it at home,'" he says.

And so, the Klippan sofa was born.

"It's still a big seller worldwide," he says.

If you think IKEA furniture is cheap and destined to break within months of putting it together, then you haven't visited the company's testing facility. Also in Ñlmhult, it is full of different machines exerting weight and pressure on items that might crack the IKEA lineup one day.

Mattias Andersson, who oversees much of the testing, says it's important to test not only how the product is supposed to be used but how customers really use it.

For example, pressure is exerted on couch cushions to simulate people sitting down to watch television. But tests are also done on the back of the couch, because people -- particularly children -- have been known to sit up there, too.

And even though you might not think your elbow weighs very much, armrests are put through vigorous testing, too.

"Sometimes people stand on the armrest to fix the curtains," he says.

Depending on the test, there could be as few as 10,000 repetitions or more than 100,000.

For example, a "wooden ass" with 100 kilograms of pressure is pressed down on the edge of a bed prototype 20,000 times, four times the number industry standards require.

"If you sit on the edge of your bed two times per day, 365 days a year, 5,000 cycles is not so much," Andersson says.

The same scrutiny goes into light sources, such as LED and halogen. IKEA often promises a 10,000-hour warranty on a lamp, which requires 14 to 30 months of testing. If 13 out of a group of 20 bulbs are still lit at the end of that period, the light gets the go-ahead. Anything less -- the industry standard is 10 -- and it's back to the drawing board.

The testing doesn't end once the products are in the boxes, though. Before they're given the final stamp of approval, every model of Billy bookcase, Boksel coffee table and Karlstad chair are put together by men and women, both young and old, to ensure they can be assembled with an Allen key (and without needing Popeye's forearms.)

And because much of IKEA's furniture is designed for people living in apartments -- often very small apartments -- these test assemblies are done in a confined space.

Well, not exactly. In fact, they're done in a large room in the testing facility where a small bedroom or living room has been simulated by marking it out on the floor with yellow tape. (There are unconfirmed reports IKEA got this idea from Les Nessman, news anchor on the popular television show, WKRP in Cincinnati, in the late 1970s and early 1980s who taped out "walls" of his "office" in a similar manner.)

All the assembly has to be done in the taped-off area amid all the cardboard and other materials that will end up in a recycling bin or the trash.

"If you have a big space, it would be quite easy to assemble a product, but if you have a small space, it's trickier. You have a lot of things all around you. You should be able to find everything and put it all together without hurting yourself," Andersson says.

And the safest way to do the assembly? Follow the instructions, of course. Andersson says many people think they can go on their instincts alone.

"They throw the instructions away like the garbage. 'I know how to assemble this,' they say. Then when they're halfway through, they realize they've turned some piece the wrong direction," he says.

Having been in Minneapolis several years ago when IKEA opened up its store next to the Mall of America, UND's Warren expects absolute bedlam when it cuts the ribbon on its Winnipeg store.

"The Minneapolis police were there for traffic control for three months," he says.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

video player to use on WFP

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 4, 2012 J1

History

Updated on Saturday, August 4, 2012 at 11:28 AM CDT: adds video

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