It all starts before you even get there. The giddy wife states her intention of purchasing a new dresser at a hitherto unvisited store, IKEA. Sure, the average male has heard of the fabled furniture store of the Swedes, much like we have heard of other outlets which we must tolerate in the name of love. (Examples: Forever 21, Williams-Sonoma) But, the wife assures me, IKEA is something different.
The GPS reminds you of IKEA’s presence from miles away, because, from miles away, you have to turn onto IKEA Boulevard. “Odd,” you say to yourself, “streets aren’t generally named after the store they—HOLY SHIT, IT’S HUGE.” The reaction is approximately the same as that of a tourist who lays eyes on the Pyramid of Giza for the first time. IKEA, however, with its yellow and blue colors coating an expanse of rectangular buildings, resembles a configuration of several enormous Legos (another Nordic gift), and so is clearly of the modern era. One cannot easily overstate the size of the IKEA store. The building—or rather, the edifice—really could pass for a feature of NASA. What in the hell could they possibly house in there?
I was about to find out.
Having parked amid the sea of vehicles, an escalator greets me on the inside. To the right are a children’s play area and a sign pointing downstairs to “The Market Place.” My nostrils alerted me to the smell of food, presumably wafting from upstairs. My wife tugged me up the escalator where, behind us, a food court came into view. It was not an ordinary food court either. There was no slimy Asian knockoff or Sbarro pizza, but rather, individuals were pushing around small wheeled trays of steaming broccoli and smoked salmon. If you’ve ever been to Europe, you’ve observed this phenomenon before. It’s quite normal throughout the rest of the world for people to actually be able to finish an unfried meal in one setting and not feel so stuffed they can’t move or shop. But that is another discussion for another day.
IKEA’s children’s area and cafeteria set it apart from lesser stores and make it real marvel of capitalism. The message is quite clear: “Come on, bring your kids! Have a meal! Make a day of it!” While no expert, I assume this comports with some business trend: the longer people remain on the premises, the more money they spend. Not to mention the stores aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as, say, Wal-Mart or McDonalds. If you go to IKEA, you’ll probably drive at least 45 minutes to get to the nearest one. And since you’ve sojourned to this mystical store, you may as well get what you need, right?
Atop the escalator, my wife and I entered the showroom. In truth, it’s less a showroom and more of a guided tour through a hedge maze bracketed not by bushes but by furniture. Here the experience continues. Arrows indicate that it’s a one-way street, which means you have to see everything before you get to anything you actually came for. It’s really ingenious if you think about it. By corralling the shoppers in set directions, marketers can direct a volley of advertisements and demo units. If you want a dresser, well, first you have to see all the lovely kitchen and bathroom setups. All the while your wife oohs and ahhs over everything, which suggests that window shopping is the ultimate gateway drug. (A number of times I heard the dreaded “we have to come back!”)
I must admit the furniture was also incredibly low priced. I normally take this as an assessment of quality. Alas, the marketers at IKEA had prepared for my cynicism as well. The maze of advertisement consists of numerous mechanical displays demonstrating the durability of the furniture pieces. Who knows how hard that lever is pressing on the $99 recliner? Who cares? It’s only $99. Not that I needed a recliner, but I would bet “because it’s cheap” eventually justifies 90% of all IKEA purchases.
Not to mention the style of furniture really brings about a sensation of lust. On more than one occasion I felt as though I were on the set of a Kubrick film (think A Clockwork Orange with a dash of 2001: A Space Odyssey.) The word “inadequate” began to take root in my mind. Who was I with my ordinary furniture bought from Wal-Mart and Target? How had I lived for so long in a home devoid of vessel sinks and pendant lamps? Why was my sofa simply black and not houndstooth patterned? Was I—a person normally impervious to the cliché infomercials and the pull of wants (as opposed to needs)—succumbing to the Siren call of advertising?
We ambled on through the store, down to “the Market Place.” My wife was eagerly oohing and ahhing over everything. To the basket was added a blanket, a dish brush and a picture frame. I didn’t have a cow until it came to the subject of cutting boards. She said we “needed” it because ours is too big. “But our old one worked,” I pleaded, “and it said Epicurean on the front of it.” (Really, how rare is it to find any sort of home appliance named after your favorite philosopher?) Oh well, the IKEA brand board was only $2.99. May as well add it to the cart.
Let me pause for a brief review of econ 101. The stuff is dirt cheap because IKEA, the world’s largest furniture store, exhibits economies of scale and scope. A greater volume of production corresponds with a cheaper cost per unit. Likewise, a natural extension of a furniture manufacturer would of course be home goods—like knives, cutting boards, coffee cups and so on. Lump all of it in the same place and a company is bound to increase its overall volume of sales. It’s like one giant middle finger to Bed Bath and Beyond.
Eventually, we made it toward the end of “the Market Place” to a self-service area (alas, the store cuts labor costs by allowing the customer to do it himself) about the size of an airplane hangar. Mighty walls of furniture towered above the vast expanse of concrete floors. I grabbed a cart, channeling years of experience as a veteran bellman, and quickly located the dresser we had come for. I loaded it up, and then felt the strangest sensation I have felt while shopping: I wanted to keep looking at stuff. We needed to get out.
In total, we spent $200. And I’m still not sure whether to be proud or ashamed of that.