Click for Ikea On­line shop­ping on its way for Ire­land

Clau­dia Mar­shall, Ikea’s Ire­land mar­ket man­ager, is de­ter­mined and able – and rarely strays from the man­ual

The Irish Times - Business - - Front Page - Mark Paul

Fur­ni­ture re­tailer Ikea will flag the in­tro­duc­tion of on­line shop­ping in the Ir­ish mar­ket when it an­nounces its full-year fi­nan­cial results at the end of Novem­ber. Clau­dia Mar­shall, Ikea’s coun­try man­ager for Ire­land (above), said it is aim­ing for a “soft launch” next year, be­fore rolling out a full on­line shop­ping and home de­liv­ery ser­vice. She said it is also ex­am­in­ing the pos­si­ble in­tro­duc­tion of col­lec­tion points around the coun­try, where on­line shop­pers would be able to pick up bulky Ikea items they had al­ready paid for on­line. Mar­shalling con­struc­tive lead­er­ship at Ikea,

Lis­ten up, be­cause here fol­lows an ir­refutable life hack. If you want to test the true strength of your mar­riage/re­la­tion­ship/friend­ship with some­one, buy a Billy book­case to­gether at Ikea. Or a Pax wardrobe, or, if you re­ally want to stress test the re­la­tion­ship, load up a Hemnes day bed.

In fact, it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter what you buy. Just as long as it takes a fair amount of as­sem­bly. If, to­gether, you can get through a visit to Ikea’s labyrinthine Dublin store (the Ber­muda tri­an­gle of Ir­ish re­tail­ing), and knock a flatpack to­gether at home with­out claw­ing out each other’s eyes, they’re a keeper.

Clau­dia Mar­shall, the re­cently-ap­pointed Ikea coun­try man­ager for Ire­land, jumps into a ca­nary yel­low Strand­mon wing chair in Ikea’s sprawl­ing Bal­ly­mun show­room and beams like the sun.

“Out of ev­ery­thing we sell, this is my favourite” she says. “I like the yel­low, but my hus­band, he much prefers the one you’re sit­ting on.”

My one is more of a manly slate grey. “So, Clau­dia, do you and your hus­band as­sem­ble your Ikea chairs to­gether?” Mar­shall raises her eye­brows, puffs out her cheeks and makes the in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nised are-you-kid­ding face.

“Ei­ther he has to as­sem­ble, or me. Never both to­gether,” she says.

She is jok­ing, prob­a­bly. It’s still solid re­la­tion­ship ad­vice from an Ikea in­sider.

This sum­mer, Ger­man-born Mar­shall as you would ex­pect she is scrupu­lously po­lite – took the reins at Ikea in Ire­land. The re­tailer is siz­ing up a pos­si­ble fu­ture ex­pan­sion in what is among its most prof­itable mar­kets in Europe.

The Ir­ish ap­pear to be ob­sessed with Ikea. Al­most €3 mil­lion rings through the tills of the Bal­ly­mun store ev­ery week – €152 mil­lion in the year to the end of Au­gust 2016, with prof­its of al­most €12 mil­lion.

It is the ninth-largest store by turnover in Ikea’s global net­work of about 400 out­lets, and the sixth largest by floorspace. Mar­shall says its per­for­mance can be com­pared to stores in big cities such as Moscow or New York. Sales in Dublin have re­cently been grow­ing at up to 15 per cent per year.

Just over a year ago, Ikea also opened an or­der-and-col­lect store in Car­rick­mines, south Dublin, bring­ing to­tal staff num­bers here up to more than 710, with the bulk of those in Bal­ly­mun. It is also un­der­stood to be scout­ing for other lo­ca­tions in Ire­land, al­though Mar­shall wouldn’t be drawn on ex­actly where.

When the Swedish gi­ant with global sales of €34 bil­lion an­nu­ally an­nounces its full-year results at the end of Novem­ber, it will re­veal a plan to launch on­line shop­ping in the Ir­ish mar­ket, which is closely aligned with its UK op­er­a­tion.

“We are work­ing very hard in the back­ground on this,” says Mar­shall. “It will come with a func­tion­al­ity to click and col­lect in Car­rick­mines. We are also look­ing into op­por­tu­ni­ties to col­lect at dif­fer­ent pick-up points. But the ini­tial start will be that you click, and then the item will be de­liv­ered to your home.”

Ikea is wildly pop­u­lar, but it is also the Mar­mite, or pos­si­bly the muse, of the re­tail­ing busi­ness. Some peo­ple claim to hate it, even though they’ve prob­a­bly never tried it. Its fans, mean­while, can dis­play a cul­tish fer­vour so pro­nounced it makes you won­der if they ac­ci­den­tally banged a dowel into their cra­nium while as­sem­bling their last pur­chase.

But whether it is ex­cite­ment or dread, the sight of Ikea’s blue and yel­low liv­ery loom­ing up over the M50 mo­tor­way pro­vokes some sort of feel­ing in just about ev­ery­body. Yet we all know what it stands for: chic, min­i­mal­ist, home-as­sem­bly fur­ni­ture, clev­erly de­signed, and very af­ford­able.

“We do demo­cratic de­sign,” says Mar­shall, echo­ing its very Scan­di­na­vian cen­tral cor­po­rate tenet. “This means all our prod­ucts must meet the five prin­ci­ples: be af­ford­able, func­tional, have beau­ti­ful de­sign, qual­ity and be sus­tain­able.”

Charm­ing as she is, Mar­shall is very much on mes­sage, and stays that way.

My visit takes place on a sunny Friday, late morn­ing, and peo­ple are stream­ing up the es­ca­la­tor at the en­trance, ready to take on one of the most im­mer­sive shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ences in the in­dus­try.

A trip to Ikea is not like pop­ping out for a pint of milk and some Jaffa Cakes. It takes plan­ning. She whisks me off on a tour.

The tour

First stop is the Små­land creche at the en­trance, where you can deposit your kid while you go shop­ping. It is named after the Swedish “Small Lands” province where Ikea was founded, and looks like a bar­rel of fun if you’re un­der three foot tall. Ses­sions last 45 min­utes, which seems supremely am­bi­tious. I’ve never got past the couches in 45 min­utes.

Up an­other flight of stairs, and we’re into the show­room proper. Here, and through­out, Ikea sets up sam­ple rooms for var­i­ous de­mo­graphic groups, kit­ted out with the store’s wares from top to bot­tom, show­cas­ing its latest de­signs.

The rooms are tai­lored to Ir­ish tastes and are based on home vis­its, where mem­bers of the pub­lic throw open their doors to an en­tourage of Ikea re­searchers, who pick their way through ev­ery as­pect of their home­life. Where do you hang your coat? Where do you keep your wine glasses? Where do you stack your plates, etc? Mar­shall has par­tic­i­pated in three Ir­ish home vis­its al­ready. Ikea sells a be­wil­der­ing ar­ray of prod­ucts - 9,500 lines in all. Mar­shall says she has dropped the prices on 250 of them since July.

Each room ap­pears to be creak­ing with pic­ture frames - on man­tel­pieces, shelves, hang­ing on walls. Mar­shall re­veals that the Dublin store sells more pic­ture frames than any­where else in the world.

What does that say about us? Are the Ir­ish so vain that we can’t stop look­ing at our­selves, or am I mix­ing pic­tures frames up with mir­rors? Mar­shall has the an­swer: “It’s be­cause Ir­ish peo­ple are proud of their fam­i­lies, their friends, their lives. When you walk into their home, they want to com­mu­ni­cate who they are.”

We me­an­der through the kitchens, the couches, the bed­room fur­nish­ings on the twist­ing, turn­ing one-way sys­tem of the show­room, which takes up one third of the fa­cil­ity’s floorspace.

Ev­ery­body who shops at Ikea knows the prod­ucts all ad­here to some mys­te­ri­ous Scan­di­na­vian nam­ing sys­tem – the Brimnes beds, the Billy book­cases (I be­lieve Ire­land may ac­tu­ally be sink­ing un­der the weight of Billy book­cases).

Where do these names come from? Ing­var Kam­prad, the Ikea founder, is dyslexic and found that names rather than prod­uct codes were eas­ier to re­mem­ber. An or­ganic, ad-hoc sys­tem de­vel­oped. Gar­den fur­ni­ture, for ex­am­ple, is mostly Swedish is­lands, like Karlsö. Desks tend to be Swedish men’s names, like Micke. Beds tend to be Nor­we­gian place names (Brimnes is near Bergen).

This sys­tem in­evitably throws up ano­ma­lies that don’t al­ways trans­late well. For ex­am­ple, years ago Ikea had a range of com­puter desks called Jerker, which raised wry smiles and a few blushes from men ev­ery­where. (Stop that down the back: Jerker is merely a vari­ant of the Swedish name, Erik.)

We ram­ble on to the bath­rooms sec­tion. This area re­ally does smell like some­one has stepped out of the shower. Ikea, some­how, pumps a bath­room smell into that part of the store: scent mar­ket­ing is a no­to­ri­ous re­tail­ing tech­nique.

So, too, is dis­ori­en­ta­tion. Ikea’s show­room has no win­dows and bends this way and that, un­til you feel ut­terly lost and de­pen­dent on them to get you to the end. I’d buy any­thing just to get to the tills. There are, how­ever, barely-marked, al­most se­cret short­cut pas­sage ways be­tween sec­tions. They’re hid­den like wardrobe doors to Nar­nia, and Mar­shall doesn’t take me through any of them.

The show­room ends at the restau­rant, which with 520 seats is, Mar­shall says, the big­gest restau­rant in Ire­land. It is very com­pet­i­tively priced - a fry up is less than €3 and you can feast on Swedish meat­balls for less than €4.

Is it a prof­itable part of the busi­ness in its own right, or is it sim­ply a cus­tomer ser­vice ad­junct for the core re­tail­ing busi­ness?

Mar­shall doesn’t say, but jokes that it works best as a place to re­fuel after the show­room, and be­fore the mar­ket hall, the sec­ond of three zones.

The mar­ket hall is also bro­ken out into dif­fer­ent ar­eas, me­an­der­ing this way and that, with a few thou­sand square feet of cute and af­ford­able smaller prod­ucts –rugs, jugs, mugs, pans etc, rather than flatpack fur­ni­ture.

The fi­nal zone be­fore the tills is the ware­house, where most medium and larg- er sized flatpack items are picked up from the num­bered aisles.

Mar­shall’s back­ground is in lo­gis­tics – she was cus­tomer dis­tri­bu­tion man­ager for Ikea in northern Europe be­fore she en­tered store man­age­ment – and she is de­lighted when I tell her that the ware­house sys­tem is very easy to un­der­stand.

It has taken us 45 min­utes to reach this point, and that is with­out dwelling. Mar­shall takes me back of house, and up­stairs to the staff ar­eas. Up here are the open-plan of­fices, the im­pres­sive-look­ing staff canteen and staff break­out ar­eas.

She tries to show me one zone, but tip-toes away. There is ap­par­ently a staff mem­ber (“co-worker” in Ikea) asleep on a bed. An­other young chap is sprawled out on a couch nearby watch­ing tele­vi­sion in a dark­ened room. Up here it feels a bit like Google, mi­nus the al­go­rithms and with added pine.

Growth agenda

Mar­shall doesn’t avoid talk­ing about her­self, but she isn’t ef­fu­sive about the per­sonal stuff ei­ther. A na­tive of Ham­burg, she did an ap­pren­tice­ship in lo­gis­tics, later study­ing it at col­lege while work­ing. After lengthy stints work­ing for waste man­age­ment and elec­tron­ics com­pa­nies, she joined Ikea in 2006 to work at its dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tre in Dort­mund, Ger­many.

Five years later, she moved to Älmhult in Swe­den where many of Ikea’s cor­po­rate func­tions are based. Nine months be­fore she took on the Dublin role in May, she moved to work as a store man­ager-in-wait­ing at its store in Wem­b­ley, Lon­don. Then the Ir­ish job came up.

“It’s not that dif­fer­ent to sup­ply chain. You give the right lead­er­ship, you don’t need to be a spe­cial­ist in all the prod­ucts, but you give di­rec­tion for where we are go­ing.”

So, where, ex­actly, is Ikea go­ing in Ire­land, apart from Dublin?

“We are on a growth agenda, and we are look­ing at fu­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties. I don’t like to get pushed into where we are look­ing at. But we are go­ing to grow.”

Cork or Lim­er­ick, or per­haps some­where on the mo­tor­way in be­tween, would seem an ob­vi­ous lo­ca­tion. Gal­way would be an­other, al­though a Mun­ster store would have a much more pop­u­lated catch­ment area. Mar­shall won’t say.

Ikea is a Scan­di­na­vian com­pany, and in very Nordic way it wears its val­ues on its cor­po­rate sleeve. There is re­peated talk of “sus­tain­abil­ity” - many of its prod­ucts are made out of re­cy­cled ma­te­ri­als.

Mar­shall is very happy to talk about Ikea’s many char­ity ini­tia­tives, such as its work with the Ir­ish So­ci­ety for the Pre­ven­tion of Cru­elty to Chil­dren and the lo­cal na­tional school in Bal­ly­mun, St Joseph’s.

She is a thor­oughly pleas­ant, and clearly a very de­ter­mined and able, cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tive. But, to­day, she is also very care­ful and sticks to the Ikea script.

Pity. Be­cause I re­ally wanted to ask did she know the iden­tity of the sadist who com­piled the as­sem­bly in­struc­tions for the Hemnes bed, the con­struc­tion of which has taken its toll on many’s a mar­riage.

“I love the open­ness of Ire­land. Ev­ery­body is so wel­com­ing and friendly. But you’re a very nosey bunch of peo­ple,” she laughs. “You all want to know how ev­ery­body feels, where they come from, how they like things.”

She seems to ap­prove, how­ever. Just as Ire­land, mostly, seems to ap­prove of Ikea. To bor­row a phrase from the ditty on its old tele­vi­sion ad, you al­most al­ways find its stuff “in the kitchen at par­ties”. And of­ten the sit­ting room, and the bath­room. And, well, if you’re lucky enough, the bed­room too...

Ikea, it seems, is in Ire­land to stay. And, with Mar­shall at the helm, to grow.

We are on a growth agenda, and we are look­ing at fu­ture op­por­tu­ni­ties. I don’t like to get pushed into where we are look­ing at. But we are go­ing to grow

We do demo­cratic de­sign. This means all our prod­ucts must meet the five prin­ci­ples: be af­ford­able, func­tional, have beau­ti­ful de­sign, qual­ity and be sus­tain­able

PHO­TO­GRAPH NICK BRADSHAW

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