On Creating A Unique Consumer Experience: What You Can Learn From IKEA

I only needed a new workstation…
Saturday I made my first trip ever to IKEA, with a specific, single item in mind: a workstation for my new apartment. I learned quite fast, however, that IKEA is not a place to go for a quick purchase. They have created a unique consumer experience at their physical location that draws you in and gets you excited about interior design. They also have literally created a maze for the consumer, and to be honest, that made it kind of fun.

The experience
After I parked my car in their overflowing parking garage (with the help of parking attendants guiding me to an open space), I made my way into the entrance, upon where everyone else already seemed to know how things went. This place certainly is popular, and the people shopping there were a good mix of pretty much everyone.

Not simply walking in, making a purchase, and walking out, but a unique experience
Looking a bit lost, a very nice woman greeted me, explained to me how things worked, and handed me a map of the location (wish I had remembered her name, I’m sure IKEA’s PR people are reading this and I’d love to give her a shout). It’s a neat setup, with an interesting flow:

  • Walk in, get handed a map of the store,
  • Go upstairs and checkout their showroom of interior design products and furniture, which is a giant labyrinth with “shortcuts” to quickly get from one section to the next,
  • Write down the model number of the piece you want and its location in the warehouse,
  • Enjoy a delicious (and cheap) meal in their food court adjacent to the upstairs showroom,
  • Walk back downstairs and go through the “accessories” section which has all the little things you might want for your home,
  • Navigate the warehouse and find the clearly labeled aisle that corresponds to the information you received upstairs,
  • Pay via self-checkout aisles and aisles with real cashiers.

Now, I knew exactly what I wanted and had come for, however because I was forced to walk through the entire showroom to make a selection, of course I found myself looking at tons of other items I had no initial intention of purchasing. I steadfast and only picked up the one item I truly needed, not the 10 other things I may have wanted. Observing those around me, however, most didn’t have that kind of self-control. IKEA’s strategy is highly effective.

The brand essence
Even though I didn’t make any other purchases beyond what I had originally intended, the key thing here is the entire experience was enjoyable. The product itself is fine; it is exactly what I needed and was simple to assemble. What stands out more than the product itself, however, is the entire brand that IKEA has built around it. Let’s look at the elements:

  • A funky showroom with tons of neat designs and modern products
  • Unique layout which you can easily “get lost” in
  • Friendly, smart staff who were happy to help and seemed genuinely cheerful to work there
  • Staff left you alone unless you asked them for help, which I think is part of their brand – they want the consumer to feel empowered (I’ll get into that more in a minute)
  • A map of the store to help you find what you need
  • Food as a complementary product and perhaps a loss-leader to sell furniture
  • A story to tell your friends (or blog about!)
  • Home delivery options
  • Easy online ordering

The marketing messages all over the store are quirky, fun and simple, which mimic the instructions on the actual product I had purchased. The IKEA experience is cohesive, well thought out and unique.

IKEA and empowerment
When you’re in the store, you could easily make your entire transaction without even interacting with any of their friendly staff. The staff only assisted if I asked directly. I think this is important to note, as I believe a big part of their brand is empowering the consumer.

You select and purchase a relatively simple to assemble piece of furniture, you take it home, assemble it yourself, and ultimately feel empowered in a world where most things are built for you already by the manufacturer.

Now, I’m a total DIY guy – I’ve built model airplanes since I was 12, my own computers since I was 14, several friends’ systems, plus small biz servers/networks.
(Image of a server I recently built – parts from NewEgg of course)

So I found the IKEA kit pretty simple to assemble. However, I feel that for someone new to DIY and to building things, this might be their first taste of creating something themselves, an experience that is overwhelming positive. IKEA is tapping into this.

Lessons for your brand
When IKEA chooses to sell food within their physical location, that is a marketing decision. When they choose to split the showroom with finished products and the warehouse with the actual product kits, that is another marketing decision. It all comes together to create the unique experience that IKEA offers that you don’t get at any other furniture store. They are selling modern products, but that isn’t as noteworthy as the overall experience. Creating that kind of deep experience is vital for your brand.

The trends that work for IKEA and can work for you:

  • Customization/personalization: let people customize their purchase to ultimately feel empowered and have the sense that they have chosen something unique and made it themselves. Create something special, something worth talking about. Make your brand personalized and and give your consumers a story to tell.
  • Showcase the product: IKEA does a great job showcasing their products and ultimately that is something which drives sales. Home depot caters more to the DIY person, but doesn’t always showcase product as well as they could by combining the showroom and warehouse. IKEA is trying to bring out your creativity in purchasing by showing you just the finished products first, which ultimately will lead to more purchasing.
  • Creating the brand experience: Everything I’ve listed above comes together to create the unique brand experience that is IKEA. It isn’t simply furniture, it’s so many things coming together to leave a good taste in your mouth. I don’t care if you like or hate their products, but if you have been in their physical location, you have an association with their brand one way or another and probably talked about that experience with a friend.

Whether you’re selling furniture or widgets, a unique experience is important for success in a physical retailer and will allow you to stand out among the competition. I’ve heard tons of friends telling me their stories about IKEA, and ultimately that drove me into the place to make a purchase. Some people love IKEA, others hate it, however everyone seems to talk about/know the brand and have a strong opinion one way or the other.

And that’s exactly my point: no one is purely neutral on IKEA. The brand evokes an emotional, memorable response in everyone. And I’d rather evoke a strong response one way or the other than be neutral in people’s minds. Neutrality doesn’t drive passion for your brand. And it certainly doesn’t drive traffic.

Target is a great brand and a great store, but you don’t hear anyone at the office telling you about their experience at Target over the weekend. It isn’t enough to just be a great brand anymore, you brand needs to be great, sure, but it also needs to tell a cool story to be talked about.

And for your moment of Zen, here’s the new IKEA desk which houses my home workstation for writing music, blogging, web stuff, etc: