IKEA, Apple, and ephemeral stuff

September 01, 2008

I’m currently in the process of setting up my new life in New York City. (I’m going to work here now for a while… more on the work stuff some other time.) I found a decent apartment that came without anything in it, aside from the very nicely furnished new kitchen. And as I didn’t own any furniture before in the US, I’ve been buying stuff from IKEA to furnish my place, which set off a stream of several loosely connected thoughts.

One thought that I had is that going to IKEA feels a whole lot like going to an Apple store. Not only the actual retail store, but also looking at their printed catalog. Both IKEA and Apple meet my “smart writing” criterion. Well, that’s actually not entirely true for IKEA: towards the end of their catalog, there are a few exclamation marks, and there is a big one right on their US site homepage. But still, the typography is good, the color scheme is a fairly quiet pastel, and the whole experience is better than most of others that I am these days exposed to. The only bad thing in their catalog is that on some pages, there’s white print on white background that’s impossible to read. The layout person was asleep when doing those pages or something.

So, the experience of IKEA and Apple is so similar in one way, and yet sometimes they are seen at completely opposite ends of the market. Nobody argues that Apple is the high end, and yet some fancypants people dismiss IKEA as throwaway stuff and brag about how they buy “quality” furniture that will last a lifetime. As if the price of something is indicative of its quality or real value. I guess it goes down to the theme of “your stuff shows who you are”. Lovely consumerism and conspicuous consumption.

Well, I happen to believe that furniture, as well as most other stuff, SHOULD be “throwaway”. I should be able to throw away what I own and replace it with something new if my preference has changed. I don’t want to keep old expensive stuff around. Stuff is ephemeral anyway. The only things of true value are in my heart and head, and maybe in my backpack where I carry my computer. The rest, well, comes and goes, and there’s no real reason to get antsy if, say, you wreck your car or something gets stolen. Just hope you had it insured. And this realization about ephemeral stuff makes life so much easier. There are so few things that are actually worth worrying about. The rest just comes and goes. But at the same time, I do care about my trash footprint and I don’t just want to throw my stuff to the street. I want help taking care of it.

So, going back to that IKEA story. I think there’s an opportunity here for both them and other companies that are selling me stuff, that goes back to my other favorite theme, “maintenance / upkeep / lifecycle”. At the end of the day, the best-performing companies will be those who realize that the real value to customer from transacting with them does not only come at the point of sale, where everything is focused these days, but it comes helping the customer through the whole lifecycle of the product. The objective of any right-minded retail company these days is to get you to their store to buy stuff. This is the culmination of all their work and this is where money and profits are made. What happens to either you or the stuff you bought later is no longer their business or worry.

The latter is no longer true, though, with electronics and other hazardous materials (car tires) takeback regulations. In many cases, if you buy new electronics or tires, the store has to take back your old stuff. I think there’s a lot of potential here for other businesses, such as IKEA in the furniture domain. Suppose that after three years, my work takes me from NYC to, say, San Francisco. The thing to do these days is to disassemble your furniture and put it in a moving truck. Well, what happens if I just don’t like the old stuff any more and would rather buy new stuff? A lot of the IKEA furniture is so cheap that economically this is a very viable option. So they could offer me a takeback service whereby they just come to my old place and take away my old furniture, and I know that it gets recycled responsibly. And they could give me something like 10% of the furniture’s original value as credit towards future purchases from them. This increases their turnover, as I now buy twice from them, and this decreases my hassle, as I don’t have to move my stuff around anymore. And the planet is happier because my old furniture gets responsibly recycled and I don’t have to get as big of a moving truck and won’t produce as much CO2 driving across the continent as I would otherwise.

The third story is about how I ended up going to IKEA in the first place. That is because IKEA is European :) Even though I live in America, I consider myself an European. And at this day and age, it’s easy in practice, as you can get news, food and other things that you care about anywhere from any corner of the world. I had gone to IKEA before with someone to buy stuff from another place we had in Europe. So as I was walking down the isles of the Brooklyn IKEA store, I had kind of a déjà vu experience. In a way, IKEA is the McDonald’s of furniture for me, as you know what you are getting in any corner of the world, and you can trust it, instead of being forced to go through unfamiliar brands and experiences over and over again.

UPDATE: one interesting parallel about how little IKEA stuff cost to me is that I also bought a used Aeron. (Why? Because I spend too much time sitting behind the desk at home to go with anything less that would give me back trouble as has happened before.) And the rest of my apartment contents, combined, cost less that a used Aeron. ;)