When Ingvar Kamprad was five years old, he sold matchboxes door-to-door. As he grew older, the “pleasant sensation” of his first profits led the Swedish boy to invest in pens, lighters, stockings and, later, furniture. He was 27 when he opened his first store in Almhult, south Sweden. While his competitors priced their furniture high, Kamprad’s cheaper goods had people lining up at the store. They could touch and feel the furnishings and sit in the chairs before buying them, unlike any business model seen in the little town in the early 1950s.
Cut to 2016. IKEA (an abbreviation for Ingvar Kamprad from Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd, his childhood home) hasn’t changed its strategy. The Swedish furniture company, with over 375 stores in over 47 countries, still has the home and its people close to its heart. “We are interested in knowing how people live. Though we are a foreign brand, people adopt us in every country,” says Ulf Smedberg, marketing manager. As the company, with its 9,500 product range, readies its feet to set shop in Hyderabad in the autumn of 2017, it reached out to Delhi, Mumbai, and Hyderabad, conducting workshops, product placements and house visits to know consumer habits and preferences. Even though it’s known for its flat-pack furniture, great design and affordable range, IKEA is still new to many in the Indian market.
We travelled with the marketing and market intelligence team for one such house visit to Greater Kailash, in south Delhi. We are welcomed by the lady of the house, who generously shows us around. IKEA wants to know what her day was like, how she spends her weekends, where the family spends most of their time, where they take their meals, and more.
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Such informal sessions have led IKEA’s team members to become anthropologists of sorts. “People have the same needs in all countries and more or less, do the same things. For us, what matters is not only what they do, but where. In Russia, for instance, most homes have their wardrobes in living rooms because houses are small and people sleep in their living rooms. In Sweden, you will find the dining table in the kitchen, because that’s where we eat,” says Patrik Antoni, manager sustainability. “Similarly, washing machines are always in the bathroom, unlike in India, where it is usually kept in the balcony. In Portugal, shoe racks are in the bedroom because they don’t take off their shoes in hallways. In India, it is usually closer to the entrance,” he adds.
Ultimately, IKEA believes their purpose is “to create a better everyday life for many people”. It is the chant that you will hear, see and experience every time you meet or enter the IKEA world. From the museum which tells the IKEA story, to the communications wing, which brings out the catalogue, and the design and testing labs — this motto was the anthem at every corner of Almhult, IKEA’s birthplace, when we visited last August.
Currently, over 15 homes in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi have been given IKEA products for a test run. “When we visit homes, we ask people what their challenges are, we look into different income groups and family units. We spend a day, sometimes more, with them, and observe how they live. And this tells us about the gap in our range. For instance, IKEA doesn’t have the tawa in its range or the rolling pin used to make rotis. Our house visits have helped us identify the need for these everyday products,” says Antoni.
Another India connect, and a first for IKEA, is the workshop with students of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, (NIFT) Delhi. With designer Martin Bergstrom, it has led to a global range called SVARTAN, which means blackness in Swedish. “When I arrived in India, what I first noticed was the light. I saw patterns on surfaces, both abstract and organic, modern and traditional; nothing was smooth or polished. I wanted the students to create interesting patterns they saw on textured walls and in between the cable wires that hung above streets,” he says in an IKEA video. This collection, which will be launched in stores across the world later this year, boasts of textured bowls, side tables, and textiles in black on white designs, which have all evolved from over 2,000 drawings at the workshop. Made entirely in India, it gives a “sense of the human hand,” says Bergstrom.
Local sourcing is the way ahead for IKEA in India, says Smedberg. Currently, they have over 50 suppliers in the country, and the number is steadily growing. From the Stockholm and Kattrup rugs done in Bhadoi to the banana fibre mats and baskets made with Industree Craft Foundation, Bangalore, IKEA’s made-in-India products are reaching global shelves.
The New Yorker described IKEA as the “invisible designer of domestic life”. And somewhere, you see the vision of its 90-year-old founder as he opened his doors to let people touch and feel his designs.