Beijing Journal: There's no place like...Ikea?
On sofas in this Ikea store in Beijing, there are people sprawled out, sleeping, or lounging with friends. (Janis Mackey Frayer/CTV News)
Published Tuesday, September 4, 2012 12:21PM EDT
Last Updated Tuesday, September 4, 2012 1:07PM EDT
In cities around the world, Ikea lures the masses to its array of home furnishings laid out as inviting showrooms to convince customers of what is possible.
Sure, crowds and lineups mean a part of a day lost to a windowless box in the suburbs,yet we go for the promise of a wide selection, a simple aesthetic, a life made better with Swedish particleboard made in China. That is the success of Ikea.
In Beijing, Ikea is popular for several reasons and it is debatable whether shopping is among them.
On sofas in nearly every display there are people sprawled out, sleeping, or lounging with friends. Families appear to be having in-depth ‘family’ discussions. The store looks more like a park or a fairground where people go to spend much of a day but not necessarily much money.
I have been to Beijing’s Ikea twice now: The first time, legitimately to buy lamps, the second visit mainly to take pictures of the phenomenon of people who go for the air conditioning or boiled hotdogs or a sense of space in a crowded city.
It takes the ‘comforts of home’ thing to a different level.
The Beijing Ikea dweller drinks coffee or tea at dining room mock-ups, or watches their kids rearrange various playrooms. Couples make out (really!) and take glam shots of each other with their mobile phones. Visitors jump on beds, have pillow fights, or crawl under the covers.
Understand that naps at Ikea are not limited to simple spurts of shut-eye: Some people are full-bore-shoes-off-under-the-covers asleep and snoring.
“Lean in more,” said a woman with a camera to her daughter, who propped herself against a bed pillow in various poses. In another aisle a young woman opened the cutlery drawer of a mock kitchen like a model at a trade show as her boyfriend/husband snapped her picture. Further on, a bed displaying sheets and toss cushions in the centre aisle of the linens section proved the opportune spot for a mother to breastfeed her baby.
No security guards or sales people or managers bother to stop anyone from acting like they are, well, at home. An Ikea public relations spokesperson once told a Shanghai-based newspaper, “We usually don’t hustle a shopper away. We will only remind him if he has lied in a display bed long enough to affect another shopper who waits to try the bed.”
Ikea made its China debut in 1999 with the idea that customers would be drawn to its minimalist design and functionality. There are seven stores now, known as ‘Yi Jia’, which translates roughly as ‘make your home the best’. Ikea is not to be confused with the ‘Chinese Ikea' chain called ’11 Furniture’ that is a counterfeit of the Swedish version right down to the little pencils and products with Nordic-sounding names. After all, what is manufactured in China is also knocked-off in China.
That incomes are rising for Chinese workers has fueled a middle class ideal here. A key part of that aspiration is buying a home and furnishing it to evoke a lifestyle that a generation ago did not seem possible.
How that translates to taking off shoes and socks and passing out in a big box store I cannot be sure.
This is not just a case of “amused foreigner”; Chinese patrons are often just as baffled and entertained. Ikea-related infractions and anecdotes occasionally show up on Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging platform.
One Weibo user wrote, “Last Friday evening when I went to the Beijing Ikea store, a lot of male shoppers I saw were topless while sleeping.”
One of the world’s biggest Ikea outlets is the one in Shanghai where it reportedly faced a ‘coffee crisis’. According to the Shanghai Morning Post, the problem arose when hundreds of people from a matchmaking club made it a point of meeting their dates at Ikea twice a week. The club’s organizer had an Ikea membership card (costing 30 yuan or about $5) entitling her to free coffee. She apparently ensured that everybody’s cup was filled for the five or six hours the couples were there.
Still, Ikea in China is making money, at least according to recent revenue figures that include the profits from my two lamps. Ikea is also planning new stores to harness what it sees as a lucrative and growing Chinese market, meaning even more places for customers to call home.