Ikea’s blue-and-yellow stores are instantly recognizable: iconic, monolithic and now, as India’s first store throws open its doors to the masses, operating in more than 400 stores in some 50 countries.
But while every branch of the world’s largest furniture retailer has that most unmistakable whiff of flat-pack conformity, regional differences do exist — not least where their famed Swedish meatballs are concerned. In many countries, including Japan, the Ikea business model has been subtly tweaked to fit local preferences and customs. Opening hours are altered, menu options are adjusted and very occasionally, women are airbrushed out of catalogs.
Here’s how a multinational company built on the principles of mass production caters to national tastes.
The cafeteria in Ikea’s new Hyderabad store will have 1,000 seats; what it won’t have is Swedish meatballs. Out of respect for Hindu beliefs, the pork-and-beef dish will be dropped from the menu in favor of chicken meatballs, biryani, samosas and vegetarian hotdogs.
It’s not the first time the retail giant’s best-known meal has got mixed up in religion. In 2013, traces of horse meat were discovered in batches from a Swedish supplier, forcing Ikea to release statements in Malaysia and United Arab Emirates reassuring customers that the pork-free “Swedish” meatballs in those countries were halal-certified (and not, in fact, produced in Sweden).
Most often, menus are tweaked simply to appeal to regional tastes: Crayfish and “veggie balls” in Japan, fish and chips in the U.K., shawarma in Dubai. In a daring move that would pit popularity against convenience, Ikea’s menu may yet become available without a diner having to go anywhere near a stick of furniture: The company is reportedly considering opening standalone restaurants in the U.S., although “no decisions have been made,” according to a spokesperson.
Unsurprisingly, the product lines in the catalog vary somewhat from country to country: The kitchenware section in India will feature spice boxes and idli (rice cake) makers, according to AFP, while its Chinese cousin goes heavy on woks, cleavers and steamers. Japan’s furniture lineup has been revamped to offer items that actually fit and perform well in Japan’s famously compact homes.
The catalog itself has been more controversial. A woman-free catalog was produced last year for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community by the company’s local franchisee, featuring photographs of men and boys only. Ikea later apologized, but the furor can’t have come as a surprise: In 2012 a Saudi catalog appeared with some photos of women airbrushed out, sparking a similar response.
The floor space
In densely populated Hong Kong, where flats are typically small and streets are crowded, Ikea is a place to relax as well as shop. The soft-furnishing section is often crowded with local residents taking an air-conditioned break from the city, lounging around on the sofas. In the meantime, in mainland China, shoppers make themselves even more comfortable: It’s common to find people sleeping in the display beds and armchairs, a habit that isn’t tolerated so readily in other parts of the world.
Limited space is an issue for the company itself in crowded European capitals like London, Stockholm and Madrid, where it’s opened small-scale stores of less than 1,000 sq. meters. That’s good news for the maze haters who can’t stand following the arrows around a typical big-box Ikea, which typically sprawls across 25,000 sq. meters.
Home sweet home
The local touches aren’t just in-store — they follow you home. Hong Kong deliveries are priced depending on the number of steps up to your apartment (perhaps not unreasonable in such a high-rise city). In the U.S. and U.K., you can have your self-assembly furniture built for you using TaskRabbit, an online service that matches freelance labor to one-off jobs, which was acquired by Ikea in 2017. In London, having your kitchen assembled could set you back anywhere between about £13 and £52 ($17 to $67) an hour. Meanwhile in Dubai, the local assembly service will charge you about 300 dirhams ($82) for the entire job.
Does the thought of all this global mega-retail have you itching for a long evening browsing the modular storage systems? Head to Hyderabad. In a part of the world where many people’s day starts and ends late, Ikea’s newest branch will be open until 11 p.m. — a full three hours later than branches in the chain’s home country.
If, however, you’ve suddenly gone right off the idea of leaving your tastefully furnished house, don’t worry, you can now shop online for your stainless steel shelving, your printed cotton pillowcases — and sometimes even your meatballs — in all but a handful of Ikea’s markets.