Anyone who’s been to Ikea knows it’s an exhausting ordeal. You start off at the top floor and have to journey through a maze of aisles and stacked shelving, following a path of “exit arrows” through multiple floors of crowded home goods. My experience of shopping in Ikea in Beijing wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary because of the Swedish goods available, but rather for the claustrophobia-inducing amount of Chinese people bizarrely treating the store like a special theme park.
Ikea’s Beginnings in China
Not a lot of foreign businesses succeed in China (see my past post on Walmart in China here), and Ikea’s had its share of ups and downs. Ikea first arrived in China in the year 1998, but didn’t start earning big profits until 2012 when they changed their practices to cater to middle class Chinese consumers. They did this by slashing prices – using locally sourced raw material and products – and encouraging people to try out products and build them at home, etc. There had never been a store like this previously, where locals could feel and actually experience the goods on display for themselves. Now, Ikea is seen as one of the few foreign-owned businesses that have been able to gain and maintain their footing in the Chinese market.
However, the store has also become synonymous as a place for all-day family outings, to the frustration of its workers and the amusement of expats expecting a “normal” Ikea shopping experience.
A Simple Shopping Run
I was unaware of what to expect when I visited Ikea for the first time in China last month. I went with some new friends the week after I moved into Beijing, as I was in desperate need for more shelving in my sparsely furnished teacher dorm. Not wanting to shop on an empty stomach, we initially hit up the canteen for Ikea’s must-have Swedish meatballs.
There were two separate cafeteria stations offering entrees and desserts that catered to annoyed-looking customers impatient for their turn at the exotic Swedish fare. Off to one side was a play area with tables for families with younger children. Dodging strollers and carts on our way through, we decided it’d be prudent to find a place to sit first, then take turns ordering food.
The dining area was in utter chaos and jampacked with extended families. All the tables were full, even the dining sets meant for displays. The tables were also littered with trays and trash. Normally in China, you’d leave your food tray for an attendant to collect and toss, but, in Ikea, things are so cheap partially because they don’t pay for attendants – you’re expected to bus your own table. Many customers here were oblivious to this rule, leaving the tables a frightful mess. We also saw many older folks who snuck in their own meals, but without an attendant to monitor them, they went unnoticed in the chaos.
We ended up snagging three seats next to a family with a baby and leaving a person to guard our spot. It was so crowded that people would line up next to our table with their trays of food, waiting for us to finish as we ate. Once satiated, we proceeded into the first segment of the Ikea maze at the top floor…
Into the Frying Pan…
After a bit of confusion about which way to go (there were loads of people going the opposite direction), we found the correct path and proceeded on into the land of home goods. We were met with an unexpected and bizarre sight. Not even a couple meters in, there were people hanging out on nearly all the display surfaces. Some people had actually taken off their shoes and were napping on the showroom beds. Others sat on sofas and gossiped or played on their cell phones. An entire section of desk chairs was occupied by elderly customers who were busily glaring at passersby or also snoozing. I found myself imagining the prices hanging off the chairs to include the people in them.
Children ran wild around each and every turn, playing with sample toys while their parents or grandparents lounged somewhere. A few kids jumped up and down on various sofas and beds.
We even witnessed one woman tucking her small child into a display bed that was advertising down pillows and a comforter set. One grown man came out of seemingly nowhere and did a swan dive into a for-sale mattress with sharp-looking plastic tags.
Couples cuddled together and took selfies in the show rooms, oblivious to their lack of privacy. Many customers had brought laptops with which to work on the display desks. Quite a few families toward the middle of the store even broke out entire picnic spreads! All of this was shocking and hilarious to say the least!
Each display area felt like we were glancing into a satire of human habits, a living art-installation criticizing modern man’s obsession with consumerism and material culture. There was something outrageous to see around each and every turn. Sometimes, we forgot what products we actually came for as it became a fun game to follow and watch what people around us were doing instead of shopping at each exhibit.
And out of the Fire!
It took a while to make it through the incredibly slow-moving throng to get to the checkout station at the bottom of the building. It was awkward having to dodge people stubbornly walking the wrong way through the store or making people get up off the furniture I wanted to look at. Overall, shopping at a Chinese Ikea is not a terrible experience, but it can be quite jarring if you don’t know what to expect.
I left the store itching to do some research about why these rowdy Chinese customers are allowed to essentially hang out in the store for hours on end. I’d only ever been to one Ikea (the one in New York you can ferry to), and it certainly was not as chaotic as this.
Crazy Incidents in Chinese Ikeas
I read that there was an attempt in 2015, dubbed the “Great Ikea Crackdown,” to stop locals from lounging in the Beijing and Shanghai Ikea branches.
Despite newspapers spouting headlines like “Rude Awakening,” Ikea clearly knows which side it bread’s buttered on and power napping remains part and parcel of the China Ikea experience.-Xu Yuhan for NPR
Ikea’s seen as a kitchy “western” experience in China. While more developed countries see Ikea as a mass produced, cheap and easy brand for furniture and other home goods, it’s a novelty store in China. The middle class in China had, in the past, traditionally little money to spend on decorating their homes, let alone home ownership. Ikea’s done well to market itself as affordable European “luxury” items for their money-conscious clientele.
On the other hand, the Ikea experience seems to go above and beyond in this country. There have been cases of Chinese couples tying the knot in Ikea (rather than in the traditional restaurants). Senior citizens have used the place for blind dates. Some workers in the city who live out of town come there for a nap during their lunch break. I’ve heard of extended families just coming to spend the day together lounging on fancy furniture. One viral couple stayed overnight (without Ikea’s permission) and livestreamed a hide-and-seek game. The list goes on.
Like it’s counterparts abroad, Ikea in China is a great place for cheap, efficient homewares. The food in the canteen is the same delicious food that you’d expect at any Ikea (Swedish meatballs FTW!). This in itself is nice when you’re craving something familiar. I was ultimately able to get the shelving units I needed (and them some). As long as you don’t mind the crowds and obnoxious people on top of virtually everything you want to look at, it’s a funny experience!