Sometime around the mid 1980’s, three middle-aged blokes called Bjorn, Olaf, and Sven were sitting in an office on an industrial estate in southern Sweden…
It was winter and it was Scandinavia, so it was dark and cold and miserable. The three men were bored, depressed, and as appears to be the predisposition of a lot of their fellow countrymen, they were considering ending it all.
As the snow continued to pile up outside, their conversation turned to the decline of their country in the world order over the past millennium. Just 1,000 years or so ago, their Viking ancestors were a force to be reckoned with – striking fear into the hearts of men women and children throughout Europe as they raided, raped and pillaged their way through the continent. Everywhere they went, they left misery and despair in their wake. If only they could return to those days and make an impact. That would cheer them up.
But times have changed. Lands that they previously colonised, developed and made more powerful were simply out of reach to them now. You can’t just turn back the clock. It’s hard to start throwing your weight around when your modern potential conquests have nuclear weapons, and all you have is some pickled Herring.
The three of them slumped in their chairs, staring into space for what seemed like hours, and then all of a sudden, Olaf sat bolt upright.
“I have it!” he said, his voice quivering with excitement “There is more than one way to skin a Reindeer.”
“I know…” said Sven who was just about to reveal the three ways he had used personally (one involving a Stanley knife, a piece of thick rope and a winch) when Olaf stopped him short.
“No, no, no, I mean we do not necessarily need to go raiding, pillaging, colonising and all that malarkey to strike fear into the hearts of men and women throughout Europe… to leave pain, misery and distress in our wake. There is an easier way… a more modern way.”
Now I don’t have any cast iron proof of any of this, but I’m convinced that that is almost certainly how it happened. How else do you explain that just a short while later in early 1987, the first Ikea store was opened in Britain, and many more were to follow? There can be no other real explanation for their existence. I mean. if you were seeking to create the most soul destroying, energy sapping and spiritually defeating experience… but one which people would actually enter into voluntarily… you could do no finer job.
So on that snowy day back in the mid 1980’s, Bjorn Olaf and Sven had created something extraordinary, and just last Saturday I was cursing them for it. Because for reasons I won’t bore you with here, I found myself in the passenger seat of a battered long wheel base Transit van, in some god forsaken corner of the west midlands with £2,000 in my pocket and a very long shopping list. Ikea loomed into view.
I know what you’re thinking. Why is someone supposedly worth a bob or two, roughing it in an intergalactic, starship miled Transit van and about to enter hell on purpose. Well all I can say is that I’m obviously much nicer than you may have been led to believe, and have a heart of gold. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever shopped at Ikea but let me give you some idea of what to expect if you haven’t – and torture you mentally by returning you to the scene of past torments if you may already have.
The first thing you need to know – and this is important – is that as soon as you’ve committed yourself to going through the doors, you’re not going to get out of there any time soon. If it’s not busy you might get out within an hour. If it is busy, well cancel your plans for the rest of the day. You see the whole thing is designed like a giant one-way maze. Once you’re in, there’s no way back and no obvious shortcuts to the end. I should add here that there ARE secret doors which can cut several miles from your journey, but no sane person would visit the store often enough to discover where they actually are. So let me suggest you shop with a lunatic if you want to get out fast.
But I digress. If you’re a normal person, as soon as you’re through the door, you’re committed to a very long walk if you ever want to get out again. And believe me, you will. You’ll be desperate to get out.
At the start of your journey, you will be encouraged to pick up a short sturdy pencil and what looks for all the world like a betting slip. This is a shopping list you’re expected to fill out as you travel around the store, marking down the wonderful things you’ve seen and would like to buy. Except you can’t. What you can buy though, is a box of bits and an Allen key. And be very clear about this… every item you mark down on that list has the potential to send your blood pressure through the roof, and take you to the very edge of your mental endurance.
Now, there’s something pre-printed on that shopping list I haven’t told you about yet. You might not notice it at first. It’s a couple of innocuous looking boxes labelled ‘aisle’ and ‘location’. I’ll return to these later because what they represent has reduced grown men to tears. But we haven’t even got to that part yet. Because all we’ve done so far is to get into the store, pick up an order form and start marking down our ‘wish list’.
When you’ve shopped in Ikea for any length of time, you start to appreciate how sheep and cattle must feel when they are herded down fenced off channels at market. The walkways are very narrow, with only the occasional opportunity to breath as it opens into a ‘clearing’. The clearing is usually littered with dining tables or sofas, but it’s a welcome release. Like an oasis in the dessert – albeit one polluted by piles of camel dung.
About half way around a REAL oasis appears – the restaurant! Now up until this point, you will have seen no natural daylight since you walked through the doors. There are no windows. But the restaurant gives you a tantalising glimpse – just when you may have been on the brink of giving up hope – of a world outside of Ikea.
There are windows in the restaurant – with glass in them. Okay, the view may be of the car park, but you can see real people who have escaped. And if they can do it, then so can you. When Olaf hatched his plan back in Sweden, this is exactly what he wanted you to think. He didn’t want to break you – not yet, not while he had still more pain to impart.
Hardly anyone walks past the restaurant, any more than they would if it were a real oasis in a real desert. And for the same reasons. You’re not really sure when or if you’ll get an opportunity to take on food and water ever again. The end is nowhere in sight and you have no idea how long it might take you to get there. It would be madness to pass up the opportunity to take on fuel. Seasoned campaigners also know they have yet to face the warehouse ordeal – more of which later – and so partly to gather their strength, and partly to delay the inevitable, they sit in hunched groups around tables wearing the haunted look of condemned men.
When we staggered into the restaurant last Saturday, weak, hungry and thirsty, I half expected to be handed some cooking utensils, some raw ingredients and a camping stove… but no, the hot food was pre-cooked, the sandwiches pre-packed and the drinks already made. Even Ikea haven’t come up with the idea of you making your own food yet, but I suspect it may only be a matter of time.
Five minutes later we were back on the trail, the temptation to put off the inevitable, was quickly overcome by the desire to just get it over with. The rest of the wish list was filled out over the next hour as we fought our way through department after department offering just about everything you could possibly think of, and quite a lot that you’d rather not. And after what seemed like an eternity, we could finally see the end of the showrooms coming tantalisingly into view.
Now to the first time visitor, this must give the same sense of euphoria experienced by marathon runners as they catch sight of the finishing line for the first time. But it’s a euphoria which is short lived. Imagine if you’d just run 26 miles and could see the finish line in front of you, and then someone tapped you on the shoulder and said “Sorry mate, you’re only half way. Oh, and you’ve got to do the last bit with a sack of coal on your back.”
That’s what it feels like when you hit the warehouse!
I won’t document what happened over the next half hour as we sweated and strained to bundle a full transit van load of merchandise from the warehouse shelves onto 3 huge trolleys and then steer them through the warehouse to the checkout, but suffice to say it involved a fair amount of bad temper, bad language and written- in-blood oaths never to darken this store’s doorstep with our presence again. How the hell you’d manage if you’re old, disabled, have a bad back or are just a bit of a wimp, I have no idea.
Anyway, we wrestled everything onto the trolleys and through the checkouts where we were handed another piece of paper to take to a collection point. Even Ikea have realised that you can’t expect members of the public to hoist three-seater sofas from warehouse shelves onto trolleys on their own. So I was given a number at the help desk, and another 10 minute wait followed, during which I occupied myself by marvelling at how much confidence the 20 stone woman opposite must have had to be eating such a massive hotdog in public without any hint of embarrassment.
Eventually, my number was called and three more huge trolleys were wheeled out containing the sofa and other assorted paraphernalia which for some unknown reason were considered unsuitable to be picked up from the warehouse. I looked at it and sighed…
”Do you have many people committing suicide in here?” I asked the woman behind the counter. “They come close…” she replied, “…they come close.”
The first two covers went on easily, but the third was obviously the wrong shape. I rang the store. Could they send a replacement? Of course they couldn’t. The only option available was to go back. Never mind, just a quick 5 minute trip to customer services. Well that’s what you’d think, isn’t it?
When I arrived at customer services, it was 4.00 pm and the guy behind the desk had clearly had a hard day. He had the look and manner of someone who might snap at any moment and bludgeon a customer to death with a faulty chair leg.
“All I can do for you,” he said when I explained my problem “is give you your money back. You’ll have to go back into the store to ask advice on what you need.”
So, back into the store we went!
Unfortunately, my journey back to the checkout wasn’t without hindrance. The customers in the morning (with the exception of Hotdog Woman) had been a pretty athletic bunch… steely eyed, lithe Ikea veterans launching SAS style smash and grab raids. Moving fast and focussed on the task in hand. But now it was late afternoon and the Birmingham chapter of the Cream Cake And Lard Appreciation Society had dragged its collective carcass from its pit, and was blocking my path at every turn.
I wanted to get to the checkout fast, and considered two options, both taken from the world of sport – I could try to force my way through like an American football running half-back, or set off on a jinking run a la welsh rugby wizard Barry John circa 1972. Having spent a lot of money on my teeth, I chose the latter and was back at the checkout within 15 minutes – a personal best. They gave me the bit of paper promised by the girl back up on the shop-floor, and there I was back where I started – waiting to see the harassed bloke at customer services.
Now if you have shopped at Ikea, one thing you will have noticed is the weird and wonderful Scandinavian sounding names they give to their products… Duktig dining tables, Galej glasses, Kivsta cushions – that kind of thing.
A red-faced, squat bloke in front of me in the queue appeared to be having problems with a ‘Fooken chair’ and a ‘Bastod coffee table’ he’d bought the previous week. That’s what it sounded like anyway, but I couldn’t be totally sure. It wasn’t that easy to tell because of the froth coming out of his mouth. He wasn’t happy with them though; I could tell that much.
Finally it was my turn, and I wearily handed over my piece of paper to the same fellow who said he couldn’t help me before. An assistant was despatched into the shop and came back with the same thing I’d brought back – but this time it was dirty into the bargain. Mr Harassed said he was perplexed and said he would get someone from the shop-floor to come and sort it out. Five minutes later, the same assistant who I’d seen half an hour earlier (she obviously knew a shortcut she’d neglected to tell me about) emerged and found out what I needed. The only problem was that they only had one left, and that had a small stain on it as well.
Normally I wouldn’t have put up with this, but they’d already battered, beaten and bewildered me by now.
The plan hatched by Bjorn, Sven and Olaf back in that office in the mid 1980’s had fully come to fruition. Victory was theirs, and they hadn’t even had to break into a sweat.
I walked out into the rain clutching my slightly stained cushion covers, pathetically grateful to have at least got something for my troubles.
Am I the only person to suffer like this? I think not. And yet despite providing what I am pretty confident is just about the worst shopping experience imaginable, Ikea is still phenomenally successful – not just in the UK, but all around the world.
Since first publishing this piece, I’ve often been asked why I haven’t yet talked about putting the furniture together. A service I provide for others… Well my answer to that is, it’s too early, it’s still raw.
Maybe one day.