It's been years and years since I've ventured out to an Ikea. Maybe that's because it's taken all this time to block out my memories of assembling "Billy" bookcases for my first apartment. The callouses are gone; my thumb is no longer swollen. Time is more precious: I think, for an extra hundred bucks I'll buy one that doesn't result in an entire evening of cursing.
Recently I decided to refurbish our play/TV room. As I worked out the budget I thought: How much do I really want to spend on a sofa that is going to be jumped on and get tortilla chips embedded in its cushions? What about a coffee table that doubles as a backboard for illegal indoor basketball? There lay the Ikea catalog among the rest of the junk mail, glowing, calling to me, a siren of stylish, affordable design....
A week later, in the wake of a snowstorm, I pulled into an Ikea lot. I trudged across the wind-blasted acres of parking towards what looked like a Swedish air terminal. I reassured myself that this was going to be an in/out operation: get the sofa, get the table, get out.
Once inside, however, I was immediately transported to the cheerful, exclamatory world that is Ikea. Welcome! New! Modernize! A main pathway led me through sparkling showroom after sparkling showroom of furniture precisely targetted to my yuppie taste--and all at impossibly low prices! Are they really saying that sleek beech-veneer coffee table--with two invisible drawers for DVD storage--is only $129?! Not possible! But it is, it is! Or maybe it's too modern? How about the more traditional model right next to it in solid ash for $99?!
Very soon I was trembling with anticipatory purchasing. Forget the playroom--there was stuff here for the whole house! I scribbled down all the absurd Swedish names of the items I wanted, that I'd pick up at the warehouse end. Ektorp! Bjursta! Ramvik! (I began to wonder if the furniture names weren't really some sort of Swedish yiddish, playing a joke on us English-speakers: I'd like the "Dreck!" side table to go with my "Schlong!" sofa.)
By the time I'd reached the "marketplace"--an emporium of impulse buys (18-piece dinnerware set for $17.99! Woven banana-leaf baskets for $12.00!)--I'd entered into a kind of shopping hyper-state. I was considering ripping out the kitchen and redoing the bedroom closets, all the while humming about the fantastic amounts of money I was saving by buying things I hadn't originally intended to purchase. My shopping cart was now teetering under crazily priced throw cushions, uber-hip lighting, bargain tumblers, fun plastic cutlery for the kids. As I aimed it in the direction of the warehouse, I was halted by the delicious waft of Swedish meatballs in lingonberry sauce. Across from me was the Europort-style cafeteria. All that was missing was the sight of SAS planes through the plate-glass windows, landing and taking off. Those clever Ikea people knew this exciting shopping experience had exhausted you and left you hungry. So thoughtful--and only $5.99 for a full plate of meatballs! Or would I prefer the oven-roasted chicken breast with lingonberry chipotle, vegetable medley and sesame rosti potatoes...for the same great price?!
Satiated, smiling, and wondering why our American boxstores couldn't be more like this, I pressed on to the warehouse. I glanced at my watch: Had I really been here for 3 hours? Oh well, I'd just pick up the stuff and go. Could be back home in 40 minutes...
But as I left behind the cheerful ambience of the showrooms and entered the warehouse, it hit me--this charming bit of Europe in the middle of a Maryland suburb. I realized that I was no longer, in fact, in an American suburb, but in a remote Soviet satellite that had not yet heard that communism had fallen.
The vast gray space was staffed by a lone "customer service" employee. A line had formed. I looked down at my list. Oops--I had not duly recorded the "bin" numbers of my items, which tell me where they are located in the two story aisles stacked with identical cardboard boxes. And in order to pick up my two "Ektorp" sofas, I had to have a paper from the furniture department stamped by the lone employee. Oddly, he did not exude the same spirit of Ikea friendliness as the "Need help? Just ask!" signs hanging overhead. As I joined the line, it occured to me that I would need a flatbed trolley in addition to my already overflowing shopping cart to transport my items to the checkout and the car. How was I going to manage this?
Ten minutes passed. The line crept forward. Finally it was my turn. The euphoria of my imminent savings had not yet worn off, and I was still hopeful about the Ikea experience. I handed the employee my sofa document. He examined it like a surly immigration official and typed some things into his computer. Then the Milan Kundera comedy began:
"Not in stock."
"One sofa. The loveseat."
"Oh. When will it be in?"
"It usually takes five days."
"Okay. So I'll order it and then you guys can ship it, right?"
"So what do I do?"
"You check with us in five days to see if it's come in."
"If it hasn't?"
"You can check back with us a few days after that."
"And then you'll ship it?"
"No?" I felt the line behind me growing disgruntled. "So how do I get my sofa?"
"When it's in you come back and pay for it."
"Wait a minute: You mean I have to drive all the way back out here just to pay for a sofa I am going to have delivered? I can't pay for it now? I can't give you my credit card number over the phone?"
I rolled my eyes at this absurdity and looked to the man behind me for back up. He did not provide back up. He had his own issues to argue and I was burning up his time.
"Yeesh. Okay. So what's the number I call to check when it's in stock?"
"Check the website."
"The website? You don't have a phone number?"
"It's better to do it online."
"Wait." A lightbulb went off. "Can I order the sofa online?"
"Then why wouldn't I do that?"
"Because they'll charge you more for shipping."
"How much more?"
"I don't know."
It turned out--as I discovered later--nearly as much as the price of the sofa itself.
I relinquished my place at the customer service desk, clutching the stamped paperwork for the sofa that was in stock. I hunted down a flatbed and the rest of my items, which I heaved on to the flatbed. Then I performed a clumsy dance routine to the check-out, alternatively pushing the two carts. As I waited in another line, more strategically placed signs--as if sensing my waning enthusiasm for Ikea--reminded me WHY I'M SAVING SO MUCH! It turns out, not hiring enough help, not assembling anything and really, providing NO SERVICE OF ANY KIND cuts the prices of things. But then, how is it that American companies such as Wal-Mart, Target and Sears offer low prices while also allowing the customer to order out of stock items with a credit card, which the store then magically ships to the customer's home? They even arrive pre-assembled!
Still, I took comfort in the signs because I had not yet experienced the full horror of life under Ikea-ism. The burly check-out clerk sat idly by as I struggled to hoist everything on to the conveyor belt beside the register. I didn't need another sign to explain to me that it was not his job to help.(I couldn't complain: he did the same thing to the woman in front of me, who was balancing a baby on her chest.) He rung it up and then watched as I hoisted it all back on the carts. There are of course no "bagging" people at Ikea--just posted reminders that it is better to purchase an Ikea shopping bag so as to not overstrain the environment (never mind about your back). Then I did my clumsy dance routine for about a mile down to the other end of the terminal, where I was supposed to pick up my sofa. Yes, even though I was not actually picking it up but arranging to have it delivered, I still had to go to a separate area of the building, hand in my paperwork, and wait for the sofa to be brought up. Then--and only then--could I go to another desk, fill out more forms, and stand in another line to take care of the delivery. Once that was done, the sofa and I would go our separate ways.
The waiting area was crowded, as if a large flight had just been cancelled. I recognized the dull stares of those who have already resigned themselves to hours of sedentary uncertainty. A number lit up on a board beside one of the counters. Someone shuffled over as a flatbed of heavy boxes was brought forward. Minutes passed. No more numbers lit up. A quarter hour went by, another quarter hour. It was getting late into the afternoon. My mind raced with everything I still had left to do--that now wouldn't get done. After 45 minutes, I couldn't believe I was still sitting there. Now I understood why Ikea tucked this area at the far end of the terminal: arriving customers couldn't see it. But I was trapped--I'd already paid for the things before realizing my shopping expedition would turn into a trip to the DMV, or a Swedish medical clinic, or any other setting where the people in charge have decided the individual's time is worthless. Worse, Ikea goes so far as to makes a virtue out of treating its customers' time as worthless--pretending it's about "your savings" when it's really about "their profits." The signs that seemed so cheerful when I entered now read like Big Brotherisms, happy slogans to make me feel better about all this lugging and waiting. Ditto the store's enthusiasm for the assembly work that lay ahead of me--assembly work that I was regretting by the second. I'm neither a carpenter nor a Marxist: I do not feel better about, or more connected to, my coffee table just because I have hewn it with my own hands. But the Ikea philosophy is spun so that the customer is supposed to feel more virtuous about wielding the Allen key himself:
Then you do your part.... Because most items are packed flat, you can get them home easily, and assemble them yourself. This means we don't charge you for things you can easily do on your own. So together we save money...for a better everyday life.
At this point I was willing to pay or do anything--including sell my fully-assembled firstborn--just to get the hell out of the store. In the end, I waited a full hour before the packaged pieces of the sectional sofa appeared, at which point I signed a paper and said goodbye to them again. When it was delivered a week later, it took me a full evening to set up: turns out, the sleeper part comes separately from the sofa part. Halfway through its construction, I dropped it on my foot. (They should include crutches with their heavier objects although, come to think of it, you'd probably have to assemble those too.) By the time it was all done, the sofa did indeed look very nice, almost as nice as it did in the showroom. Bruised, bleeding, I collapsed upon on it--and vowed next time: Wal-Mart.
For a thoughtful and more serious analysis of Ikea's claims about its eco- and enlightened corporate practices, read this article by another Crittenden in the February/March issue of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine.