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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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How We [Almost] Beat IKEA

Many speak of the often ill-fated IKEA relationship test. Few live to tell the tale.

On a recent episode of 30 Rock, Liz Lemon and her boyfriend Criss decide to take the aforementioned relationship litmus test. On the way in they see an old couple arguing while leaving the store. The old man exclaims, “I’m going back for those cute bowls!”

She replies, “I swear to God I will stab you!” Foreshadowing their downfall.

Though Liz picks the table she likes beforehand, Criss starts to have second thoughts when he sees it in person. On top of that, he does not take the power of IKEA seriously and foolishly considers buying heart shaped salt and pepper shakers.

My manfriend and I for some reason decided to go to IKEA on Sunday, the worst day for IKEA. We expertly weaved and slithered our way through the screaming children, cheap furniture that is 90% glue, and impossibly organized showrooms. A disgruntled woman and I got in each other’s way, you know where you do that thing that you go back and forth, when one tries to take the right way, the other goes that way, you know the one. She actually grumbled, “This is a nightmare…” But me and B made our way to the end with the exact items we planned to get and therefore stayed within our preplanned budget. Hurrah! We had beat IKEA. Drunk with self-pride, we also squeezed in Home Depot, Fred Meyer (like Target), and the Farmer’s market, all back to back. At the end we were not angry, we were actually in a good mood and managed to plant the herbs we had just bought and put them in the window sill. Basically, we were crapping out rainbows.

There was just one problem. We have had our eye on this particular IKEA countertop for a while, (if I told you the one I would have to kill you) but knew it was out of stock. On Sunday, we asked when it was coming in and the guy said Tuesday (yesterday.) No problem! we said, we will come in before B’s work then. Well yesterday we did not have time, and since there were 20 pieces, we figured it would have to be there today. I called today when they opened, 10am, just to double check their inventory. They only had 10 pieces. So we begrudgingly went there before B’s work and went straight to the warehouse part since I had expertly written down the Aisle and Bin number down before. When we got there, there was a woman struggling with a large countertop. My heart sank. But alas! There was one left, under the one she was struggling with. We offered to help and said we were planning on getting one as well. She replied, “Oh I am getting two, they said there were 8 though,” passive aggressively saying, “I’m taking both of these bitches, so back the fuck off.” Needless to stay we stopped helping her and left her grunting and wrestling with the awkward countertop. In vain, we asked an employee if those were in fact the last, knowing full well they were. Their next shipment is in five weeks.

It hurts going all the way to a store and seeing the item you wanted out of stock. It hurts even more seeing the last item being taken from you in front of your eyeballs. What a slap in the face.

The ride back was a tense one. To add insult to injury, IKEA is right next to my manfriend’s work. So we went to IKEA, came back, and then he left to go back to the same IKEA area. Why not me just go by myself? B’s truck is stick and I cannot drive it. Why not B just go on his way to work? Because the countertop would stick out of his canopy and he could not leave it like that at his work parking lot. Do not question me! This was the only way.

We suddenly kept asking questions with no answers. Why couldn’t we have just gone 10 min earlier? Why couldn’t I have gone yesterday and have it sticking way out of my Honda? Why did IKEA only restock 20 pieces when that product has been out of stock for months? Why were all the streetlights turning red? Despite the unseasonable sun, everything had a grey cloud cast over it. At one point I actually said, “Why didn’t we push her down and take the countertop? She was overweight and couldn’t possibly catch up to us.”

So IKEA, you may have won the battle but you have not won the war. Let this be a cautionary tale, don’t ever let your guard down…this is when the IKEA monster strikes!!!!