MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

Stuck in the Store: The IKEA Idea | March 23, 2011

Through its seven decades of existence, Swedish furniture giant IKEA has held fast to the unique ideology of letting the customer take control. Their products span the full gamuts of color, style, size and shape, and their DIY aesthetic both encourages at-home construction and promises ease of assembly. But when it comes to the company’s 313 international locations, each one a sizable warehouse rivaled only by Costcos and Walmarts for pure square footage, a strategic feat of design suggests an entirely opposite credo — one of keeping the consumers’ personal purchasing behaviors outside of their control, even outside their levels of comfort.

According to upcoming academic studies out of England, IKEA’s in-store aim is to trap customers for as long as possible, not unlike amusement parks, zoos and casinos. The thinking is simple: the longer potential buyers wander through endless aisles, the more likely they are to spend money on extraneous items. IKEA stores are thus designed like giant mazes with misleading corners, multiple floors and unclear directions (see below). The consumer’s navigation process is almost completely paralyzed, creating a difficult situation that he more or less has to buy his way out of.But why exactly do customers tend to overexert themselves financially as opposed to rebelling against the consumer labyrinth? Alan Penn, a professor at the University College of London, offers several reasons. First is that IKEA’s popular products are intentionally placed at the end of the store, so visitors are forced to wade through the jungle to find what they actually want. Then, when they notice other items bearing IKEA’s foremost trademark — its remarkably low prices — they tend to relish the deal as opposed to resisting it. Lastly, because the store requires such a trek for a single run-through, the concept of “going back to get something” doesn’t exist; instead, customers are forced to make instantaneous decisions — buy-it-or-leave-it-behind, perhaps — at every turn. Referencing the impossibility of turning around in an IKEA, one employee said that the corporation has an ironic, company-wide name for its one-way aisles: “Long and Natural Paths.”

Of course, with an estimated $3 billion in profit last year, IKEA has a well-oiled public relations team in place. Mona Astra Liss, a corporate PR director, responded to the maze theory with the following succinct statement: “The size of the store is designed to help support easy customer traffic flow, as well as easy self-serve and check-out.” And some people certainly appreciate the style of IKEA stores — one such shopper, questioned in an exit interview, explained that IKEA “gives consumers the the ability to think like designers by discovering possibilities in the showroom space, then building their own spaces from larger ideas.” Still, one happy customer doesn’t mean that the rest aren’t being systematically manipulated.
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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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