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  • Oct 31, 2014
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Ikea at last cracks China market, but success has meant adapting to local ways

Furniture giant has bent over backwards to accommodate Chinese keener on sleeping than shopping, and is now seeing rapid sales growth

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 September, 2013, 6:10am

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ikea's flagship mainland store - one of the world's largest - is abuzz with people. Walkways guiding visitors from one showroom to the next feel more congested than the road outside, and almost all 660 seats in the canteen are occupied. Yet the lines to the cashiers are refreshingly short - most are not here to shop.

The store is gripped by a kind of anarchy that would rarely be seen, or tolerated, in its country of origin. There are picnickers everywhere - their tea flasks and plastic bags of snacks lining the showroom tables. Young lovers pose for "selfies" in mock-up apartments they do not live in. Toddlers in split pants play on model furniture with their naked parts coming in contact with all surfaces.

On a king-size bed in the middle of the largest showroom, a little boy wakes from a nap next to his (also sleeping) grandmother. When the old woman casually helps the boy urinate into an empty water bottle, dripping liquid liberally on the grey mattress under his feet, most passers-by seem not to mind or even notice. The exception is a young woman who elbows her disinterested boyfriend: "Look, he's peeing into a bottle!"

Most endemic, however, is the sleeping. After a few, rare clear days, the city's notorious heavy smog has returned, and is made worse by a sticky, dusty heat wave striking northern China. Weeks earlier, a photo of people napping in a Shanghai shopping centre to escape the searing heat went viral, but in the capital, it is Ikea's cool, conditioned air that is salvation for tens of thousands of its inhabitants.

The bedroom and living room sections on the store's third floor are the most popular. Virtually every surface is occupied by visitors appearing very much at home. Older people read newspapers or drink tea; younger visitors cuddle or play with their phones. Most, however, are sound asleep.

On an average day, the 42,000 square metre store lets 28,000 visitors through its doors - though this day might be particularly busy. And every day, Jason Zhang, who works in the bed section, patiently wakes up about a hundred of them.

"Excuse me, you can't sleep here," he says politely but firmly, waiting for the verbal abuse that often follows as he redirects them to a designated section near the canteen. "Other customers need to try the product. The resting area is just over there."

His efforts are mostly in vain. In the bedroom section, the few customers actually interested in buying mattresses struggle to find space to try them. Almost all the beds have people sprawled on them, or tucked in under colourful duvets, their shoes kicked off on the floor. In one showroom, two women and a baby are fast asleep in a bed, with a man, presumably the father, knocked out in an armchair next to it.

"I think it's just that shopping behaviour in China is very different," says Zhang, shrugging at the mayhem around him.

The Chinese approach to Ikea has long intrigued expatriates and domestic internet users alike, with bizarre incidents regularly topping the news on social media. Judging from online testimonies, it seems fairly common to leave kids alone to play and nap in the children's showrooms while the parents run other errands. In Shanghai, it was rumoured that a speed-dating club of 50 to 60 members gathered weekly in a store over free coffee provided courtesy of the group leader's Ikea club card.

While the free-riding may not seem like an immediate recipe for profit, Ikea is exceptionally patient about it. "We welcome anyone to visit our stores - today's visitor could very well be tomorrow's customer," says Linda Xu, public relations manager for Ikea China, adding that China is one of the company's most important markets.

Yet it is obvious that Chinese consumers making themselves right at home in the store put a strain on staff. In keeping with Ikea's focus on self-service, the store has relatively few employees on the shop floor, explains Yvonne Yin, a PR spokeswoman at a Shanghai branch.

"The sleeping behaviour does create extra work," Yin admits. Sheets have to changed every other day or so. "We have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it's great that they love Ikea, but you think: why can't they do things like that elsewhere?"

Ikea has tried hard, in its own way, to adapt to the Chinese market. Initially, it was not a smooth ride for the privately held, Swedish-founded, Dutch-domiciled company. The first two mainland stores opened in 1998, and it took another eight years before other branches were added.

But now it seems Ikea's patience with what may be its most challenging market is paying off after 15 years in the country. The company recently became the largest foreign commercial landowner in China, with 12 stores covering a total of 640,000 square meters. In fiscal 2012, turnover exceeded 6 billion yuan (HK$7.5 billion). It saw more than 15 million visitors - 7.3 million of whom visited the Beijing flagship store.

And it is expanding aggressively. On Thursday, a third store opened in Shanghai, while Beijing will get its second later this year. Land has also been bought for another three stores in Chongqing, Wuhan and Hangzhou.

According to Tom Doctoroff, an expert on Chinese consumer psychology and author of What Chinese Want, the recent spike in Ikea's popularity is mostly due to a dramatic change in pricing strategy. The average cost of Ikea products has fallen 50 per cent in the past decade.

The main problem was that, until recently, people were not willing to pay Ikea's prices, Doctoroff says. For Chinese consumers, products for domestic consumption are secondary to the more visible status offered by Western brands such as cars, watches or even Haagen-Dazs ice cream and Starbucks coffee. "They finally got the price-value equation right," he says.

For many, going to Ikea may not be too dissimilar to visiting a theme park. Generally, Doctoroff explains, Chinese people tend to take a more recreational approach to consumption. "Shopping in China is far more about the experience itself than it is in the West," he says.

Sometimes, it's simply something you do to escape the heat and enjoy a good nap. Unperturbed by the commotion around her, a young woman slumbers peacefully on a bed in a showroom until her friend, awake at the foot end and checking her phone, gently pokes her. She sits up and casts a sleepy eye around her.

"I was just tired," Xujin, 18, replies when asked about her choice of napping spot, seemingly confused by the question. "I don't mind all the other people. It was very comfortable."

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This article is now closed to comments

brent.mosey
China is certainly different than your typical North American or European countries, and it can be an exciting pleasure at first. I remember, during the early years of traveling to China, feeling similar to you. The problem is, for me at least, it wore off. The idea that "Westerners" know how to "properly behave" just like herded sheep is a little off base, in my opinion. It's called having respect for others. I don't push people off the subway because I think about the outcome and realize I may hurt others. I don't push my way to the front of a line because I realize that others have been waiting there longer than I have, and I wouldn't want that to happen to me. I don't smoke in an elevator with children, because I realize smoking is my choice, not theirs, and it should only be affecting me. I stop for people crossing at crosswalks because I consider the fact that I may injure someone. Being a herded sheep has it perks. When I brought my family to China for one of my visits, it was extremely stressful trying to watch my children as bicycles, motorcycles and even cars were constantly presenting dangerous situations. We had two very close calls. Safe wasn't exactly the word that I, personally, would use.
I'd hardly call it "racist" to comment on common trends I've seen in the country of China. That's about as silly as saying it's racist to say that most Chinese use chopsticks. Anyways, fortunately, I don't live there, so if that's what you love, its all yours
michael.desocio.37
I'm shocked by the racist comments on this board. This article captures one of the many, many reasons why I love China so much. Sure, Westerners know how to "properly behave" in an Ikea or a shopping mall - just like perfectly herded and obedient sheep, or domesticated animals. (By the way, who says *your* way is the *right* way? Other questions to ask yourself: Why are you so angry and threatened at other ways? And what gives you the right to judge?) Read Michel de Certeau's "The Practice of Everyday Life," about the small resistances and unprescribed uses people make of objects and spaces. [paragraph] Go to a housing estate in China, and then one in America, and you'll see the difference. In China it's a safe, bustling, active community with a creative informal economy and where women of all ages (with men as well) have set up meeting places to dance and exercise; in America or England, it's a danger zone of violence and gang-controlled turf, where the elderly dare not stay out in the open for too long. [new paragraph] And did you stop to think that being in Ikea is for many Chinese like being in a foreign space? The air-conditioning, the luxurious soft beds and cushioned furniture (many Chinese sit on wooden furniture and sleep in hard beds) - it's not just a place to browse furniture, but to enjoy the experience of being in a kind of exotic locale. If anything, I want to say: Stop judging (an understandable albeit knee-jerk response), be open and try to think it through.
clive.rowland@gmail.com
It doesn't take much to see where and how the actions of the Chinese are unacceptable in this case. I am sure many other mainland Chinese are also as shocked as the west are at some of the behavior here.
The woman letting the child pee in a bottle is disgusting for so many reasons, but, the only unusual thing about that is the fact she used a bottle and didn't let him just go on the floor. Firstly the boy is old enough to have enough control over his body and secondly, I am sure the store had some (more than adequate) toilet facilities.
For me, as a expat living in China, this whole thing is something I find amusing more than anything, but if China (and indeed Ikea) wants to be respected internationally, they need to stop it happening, not rely on it being hidden from the media.
impala
So this is what h3ll looks like: a giant, windowless IKEA maze with selfish, rude people all over it. And nothing to eat but meatballs made out of cardboard.
andreaswagner
So according to IKEA success is to turn your shop into a zoo, where the keepers have to lock them selves up. Interesting. And this 'customer behavior' is the result of how many thousand years of 'civilization'?
charlie212
mainland chinese are a pure disgrace to the human race
dunndavid
Here you have it all laid out in front of you. Mainland people are just low level. They don't care anything about the interests of other customers or the store. This kind of work practice extends into the workplace. When we sell equipment we have to install it and then come back every time the lazy factories can't find out how to push a bottom. We worked very hard to translate all of our manuals into Chinese, but no one bothers to read them. China is a long way away from being an advanced country, if ever. This article is further evidence.
jmscscmp
These people have absolutely no sense of propriety at all. I am surprised that the store personnel do not make effort to let them know that this is a store, not a public bedroom.
MingBaakMei
A couple of months ago in the HK IKEA in Shatin I watched a small boy (4 years old?), alone, in a child's bedroom mockup, he took off his shoes placed them neatly under the child's bed and then pulled back the duvet, climbed in, pulled up the duvet and snuggled up underneath and was clearly in 7th Heaven. If I had a video camera it would have formed the basis for a wonderful advert for IKEA.
Was he abusing where he was and what IKEA was trying to promote? NO he was obviously an IKEA convert, at least for the short term if not the long term.
sienna.lai
how is this racist? .. perhaps 'culturalist', MAYBE .. And that's only because most of us get trapped in this mire of falacious thinking easily. The lack of respect you speak of is exactly the behavior being brought about (again) with this article. Lookup '****www.criticalthinkeracademy.com/' for your own sake, PLEASE!
I think you have it backwards .. it is eastern culture to behave like 'perfectly herded and obedient sheep, or domesticated animals." .. that is until they are released into the candy store of new found freedom. .. this is what we are seeing .. and often .. literally every time I have been a witness.
Past, that it is 'culture' BY ITSELF that engenders drone like thinking .. not just 'eastern' or 'western'.

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