After 70 years, Swedish retail giant IKEA will stop printing its legendary catalogue, which at its peak is said to have had a circulation bigger than the Holy Bible.
How did a store pamphlet become an icon that was published in 32 different languages and distributed the world over?
The first IKEA catalogue
Ingvar Kamprad was already a businessman at age five when he went door to door selling matchboxes in his Swedish village of Agunnaryd. He graduated to stationery and Christmas tree decorations by the time he was 10. His entrepreneurial skills and hard work led to the genesis of IKEA when he was all of 17. Soon he had his own store that sold furniture by local craftsmen.
In 1951, he put together the first IKEA catalogue, which featured the well-known MK wing chair. It was in Swedish, and he printed and distributed nearly 285,000 copies, many as mail order catalogues. Kamprad figured keeping prices low was the key to success. He would soon start the “supermarket for furniture”, which today has probably the largest retail floor space in the world.
Mirror to changing times
Five years after the black-and-white version first promised affordable, stylish furniture in people’s homes, the catalogue started to feature colour photos and swatches for upholstery. It drew customers to the first IKEA store, which opened in Almhult, Sweden, in 1958. Customers could either phone or mail in their orders by using a coupon in the catalogue.
By the 1960s and ’70s, the IKEA catalogue had shifted its focus from just pictures of furniture to spaces within the home. It was no longer only about living room furniture – there were products for the corridors too, such as the hallway bench with its drawer-table-bench design that allowed for a multi-functional use. Indeed, furniture could now be configured in different ways – like the very famous BILLY shelves that gave multiple options to users, in four sizes and five colours.
If the catalogue in the ’80s presented an industrial look, by the ’90s, photographs on the visually rich pages offered ideas to make the most of small spaces. The prices of products too began to feature on them, telling readers that while you could buy furniture for 1,500 Swedish krona, you could also get a beautiful vase for just 7 krona.
By this time, the catalogue sent out one broad, all-encompassing message: that there was no part of the customer’s life that IKEA could not touch. The latest version of the catalogue showcased materials such as bamboo and wicker in furniture and accessories, which had so far been rarely explored.
Distribution and circulation
The IKEA catalogue is mass-distributed annually in and around each IKEA store for free, and in the primary market areas. It is also available online. At last count, IKEA had printed and distributed nearly 40 million copies of the catalogue in more than 50 countries – including Japan, Germany, Australia, Netherlands, France, Finland, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, UAE, US, UK and Israel – in 32 languages. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram
The end of a good thing
“For 70 years it has been one of our most unique and iconic products, which has inspired billions of people across the world. Turning the page with our beloved catalogue is in fact a natural process since media consumption and customer behaviour have changed,” Konrad Grüss, Managing Director, Inter IKEA Systems BV, has been quoted as saying.
“We have been transforming many aspects of how to reach and interact with our customers, and the work continues to find new ways to amplify unique IKEA home furnishing knowledge, products and solutions in the best possible.”
With over 4 billion visits to their website last year, the future is certainly digital. IKEA now meets its customers through its apps. In autumn 2021, it will release a book on the history of the IKEA catalogue, which will carry the knowledge that it has acquired in 50 markets around the world, the company has said.
The choices people made
The IKEA catalogue was supposed to be testimony to the way “people plan their needs and dreams at home”. In fact, the content was developed globally at IKEA Communications in Älmhult, with a common base for all versions, but which looked different in different markets.
IKEA has for long been the magic word on many lips when people returned to India from abroad. Those who couldn’t carry back a shelf, a chair, or a photo frame, bought older copies of the catalogue from secondhand book vendors. In it were ideas on how to make the most of corners and corridors, and people would adapt the styles to their homes.
IKEA offered an alternative to the proclivity of many Indians for bulky furniture, and allowed them to imagine cleaner, fuss-free interiors. From sofa-cum-beds to beds with space for a study table underneath, and kitchens that could be made modular through DIY assembly, IKEA allowed the living comfort of a 500 sq m home in a 50 sq m space – in a manner of speaking. All you needed were hooks that made the most of the walls, and adjustable shelves that would accommodate your television, books, and everything in between.
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