IN AN ONLINE video of the opening of Ikea’s first Indian store in Hyderabad on August 9th, you can see a crowd pushing and shoving to get inside, reminiscent of the peak hour queue of any of the many popular temples that dot the country. A tweet by the news agency ANI along with the video labelled the situation ‘stampede like’, something that is also associated with temples. It is an apt analogy because we are in the middle of India’s consumerist age and Ikea is the latest addition to its new worship-houses. As many as 40,000 flocked to the Ikea store on its first day, some from cities in neighbouring states. But it does not have to mean much. When Zara launched in Mumbai, young men and women literally ran in at full sprint as soon as the doors opened. Now they enter that store with more dignity.
The Ikea store is 400,000 square feet. The largest Indian mall is said to be one by Lulu in Kochi and that is 250,000 square feet. But Lulu is full of shops and eateries and whatnot. Ikea just sells stuff you can keep at home. It is a single shop with a big restaurant in it. It is unlike anything Indians have been acquainted with when they think of a ‘shop’. If the internet had never existed and such a thing came up, we would need a leap of imagination. But the internet does exist and so we are not unsettled. It is just one more of the many inevitabilities that we are entitled to and which must come to us because we might be an infinitesimal dot but added together become among the biggest markets in the world.
Ikea was founded by Ingvar Kamprad at the age of 17. The company’s website tells us that he was brought up on a farm in Sweden and his entrepreneurial streak was evident when he, as a five-year-old, started selling matchboxes to neighbours. By the 1940s, he was a furniture retailer, using elements like self- assembly even if sales were catalogue-driven. Within a couple of decades, Ikea as we know today had come into being. In January this year, when he passed away at the age 81, Ikea had a presence in 49 countries with over 400 stores. In his obituary, The Economist wrote about what makes Ikea tick: ‘Customers do as much of the work as possible, in the belief they are having fun and saving money. You drive to a distant warehouse, built on cheap out-of- town land. Inside, you enter a maze—no shortcuts allowed— where every twist reveals new furniture, in pale softwood or white chipboard, artfully arranged with cheerfully coloured accessories to exude a chic, relaxed Scandinavian lifestyle. The low prices make other outlets seem extortionate, so you load up your trolley with impulse buys—a clock, a bin, storage boxes, tools, lampshades and more tea lights than you will ever use.… Mr Kamprad’s impact on modern life rivalled that of Henry Ford and the mass-produced motor car. Furniture used to be costly, clunky, dark and heavy. For the cash-strapped and newly nesting, fitting out a home could cost many months’ salary. IKEA made domesticity not just affordable and functional, but fun. Out went the hand-me-downs and junk-shop monstrosities. In came the cool, tasteful, egalitarian look and feel of modern Sweden.’
Is this a formula that applies to India? The biggest pitfall that the company faces: Indians are culturally handicapped when it comes to do-it-yourself wares. Ikea is not going to change that. Take a random sample of 100 Indians and you would be lucky to find a single man or woman who either relishes or has the ability to assemble a bed. Likewise, the idea of lugging home your own furniture from the shop is alien to us. Ikea does offer delivery, but this comes at a price, unless it makes a concession on this for Indians. In an article posted on LinkedIn titled ‘IKEA in India: Here is what is going to happen’, Satyarth Priyedarshi, head of product marketing, JioChat, noted: ‘My experience in Japan told me that the cost of this delivery+assemble service can be as much as the furniture itself. But that was Japan, so here may be they will be 30% of the product. Most people go ahead and buy, and then realise the real cost, but by that time they have already paid for the furniture. The payment for delivery, assembly and packaging is very conveniently placed AFTER the purchase counter. Yep delivery charges have to be paid. Most of online and offline people do it for free.’
Ikea has put aside Rs 10,500 crore for India, a figure certain to increase. Next year, it will open a store in Mumbai. It wants to reach 40 cities. To change the way Indians look at furniture, Ikea however needs more than just design and price. It needs to tweak itself too. It is already talking of going in for smaller stores and focusing on e-commerce to a degree that it hasn’t needed in other markets. In an interview to Business Today, Ikea India CEO Peter Betzel gave an indication of how Indian needs have been kept in mind: ‘Our surveys into some 1,000 Indian homes, he said, revealed that many people live out of small spaces and would like increased functionality and multifunctionality with clever storage spaces. That plus, meeting local needs like those for an idly-maker or a steam cooker, have all been looked into here.’ In the Hyderabad store’s restaurant that can seat 1,000 people, it has Indianised the menu up to 50 per cent. A samosa plate at Rs 10 is as cheap as you get on the street, a clear awareness of the local terrain.