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Flocking v Differentiation aka why I’m uncomfortable in IKEA

(image from Flickr Creative Commons)

I have a lot of anxiety around IKEA. For starters, it’s always packed full of grubby kids and Noah’s ark styled couples, you know, the kinds that dress alike. Second, they trap you on certain floors and sections, by making you go up an escalator with no way down, urging you to follow the yellow brick road through the store. I’ve solved these problems by never going on a weekend and entering the store through the exit (and first getting a $1 ice cream cone as extra incentive). Seana has already written on IKEA as a sore subject.

My biggest beef with IKEA, however, is that I really like their stuff. I go happily along picking new sheets and pillows and crap and then it hits me that millions of people have all this same crap in their homes. The cool style reinforces your belief that you are a unique individual with good taste but in reality you are unique just like everyone else buying this mass-produced consumer good. This tension has pecked at me for years but I couldn’t put my finger on it until I was listening to an episode of the Planet Money podcast today, Episode 457: Why Pink. In the episode they discuss how fashion trends occur and why copying is so prevalent (embraced even) by the fashion industry. The reason there may be 50 different kinds of denim shirts for sale in 2013, is that we all want to be accepted and fit in (flocking), yet we want to feel unique and like we have our own style (differentiation). Designers offer so many different iterations of what’s in right now so that you fit in, but allow you to select one piece to stand out from everyone else.

(image from Flickr Creative Commons)

I think this tension is most profound in IKEA because of its lack of direct competitors. Really, who else is in the affordable furniture biz. Target maybe? There is no middle market for furniture. The next step up, we’re talking about Design Within Reach and Room & Board, where a couch may go for $5000. Besides antique, vintage, estate sale type situations, the only place to go for affordable designerly furniture is IKEA, and thus the conundrum. There aren’t enough iterations to make me forget that I’m like everyone else, and to fool me into believing I’m a unique snowflake. They definitely have fresh, youthful, clean styles with some variety, yet lots of people I know will have the same exact thing, not a variant, the same exact thing. I walk into a new client’s office. Oh, that’s my coffee table. At my friend’s house, oh I have that rug. It’s too much flocking folks. I haven’t solved the problem of furniture & home goods differentiation, but I’ve identified a new piece of my Ikea-discomfort puzzle. And thus, a win.

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