“You never visited Ikea before?” a neighbour asked me.
Nope. I never visited Ikea before. It’s just a shop that never interested me I suppose. I’m not very into shops.
I know there’s an Ikea somewhere near Marseille (I live in southern France). And they’re all over the UK, where I used to live. But I never shopped in one.
Then a friend here mentioned the new one that’s opened in Vedene, near Avignon. I didn’t think much about it but the other day I happened to drive past and saw the flags and banners and general hoopla – Ikea, Ikea – about the new store. On a whim, I parked and went in.
Apparently, 600 million Ikea customers spent £20 billion in the stores worldwide in 2009. Ikea was started by a Swedish guy who is now, by some estimates, the real richest man in the world. In 1926, Ingvar Kamprad was a young man living quietly in a small Swedish village when he had a bright idea that would lead to Ikea’s eventual world domination for selling flatpack furniture.
An entrepreneurial type who bought and sold stuff all the time, he found himself in difficulty one day trying to get a table into a customer’s car. He suddenly thought the table would be easier to shift if he took its legs off. And so the flatpack table was born. I think the idea was to sell self-assembly furniture, with simple designs, that people could kind of hammer together at home.
These days, Kamprad lives in Switzerland and keeps a fairly low profile. He is not flamboyant with his great wealth. He is said to have put up a valiant fight against alcohol throughout his adult life. And he is also said to have been a member of Sweden’s equivalent of the Hitler Youth, the Nordisk Ungdom.
But I digress. I have no idea how other Ikeas work in France or around the world. Perhaps they are all the same. But my local branch is organised as an “exhibition” on the huge first floor with bedrooms, kitchens and studies all set up like showrooms displaying Ikea’s products and indicating styles people might like to replicate in their homes. (Or not.) The ground floor stocks all the items and people just go and pick up the ones they want.
I had an idea Ikea would be all flat-pack beech and pine furniture but it’s much broader than that in scope. I wasn’t interested by the furniture. It didn’t look very attractive and anything I’ve ever heard about flatpack furniture is that it’s insanely complicated to assemble. But there did seem to be masses of household articles that were made of good materials and very reasonably priced. In fact, I wondered if the prices were being held artificially low until local people got hooked on shopping there and then prices might rise.
There was a fair amount of tat but also plenty of things for the home that were perfectly tasteful and well-designed. If I need towels, cutlery, bowls, vases, kitchenware, then I might shop there as the choice looks pretty good.
I ate a rather bland lunch in the restaurant but again the prices were low and the meals were reasonably healthy – vegetable wraps, pickled herring, (well it’s a Swedish store), fruit salads, yoghurt and fromage frais – that sort of thing.
There were loads of staff around and no queues at the check-out. All in all it looks like a useful store. But now I suppose someone will tell me it’s the 21st century version of the workhouse and is single-handedly destroying rainforests. Nothing is simple any more. Probably not even Ikea furniture.