The retail world just lost one of its most famous game-changers with the death of IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, who passed away at the age of 91 on January 27, 2018 at his home in Småland, Sweden. As the world’s largest cross-cultural furniture bazaar, IKEA has become synonymous with affordable and stylish home décor. Beginning as a mail-order business in Kamprad’s tiny Swedish village of Agunnaryd in the 1940s, the company now boasts more than 300 stores, located everywhere from China (where shoppers can grab an ice cream cone for only 16 cents) to Russia. Check out these 14 lesser-known facts about store mazes, wordless manuals, and why they banned hide and seek.
1. IKEA IS AN ACRONYM.
Just 17 at the time he began making door-to-door sales—peddling mostly pens, jewelry, and stockings—Kamprad named his fledgling company IKEA. The “IK” are his initials, the “E” is for the modest farm he grew up on (Elmtaryd), and the “A” is for Agunnaryd, his home village. (Owing to their often-frustrating assembly processes, Amy Poehler once observed IKEA might be Swedish for “argument.”)
2. THE PRODUCT NAMES ARE A RESULT OF INGVAR KAMPRAD'S DYSLEXIA.
IKEA’s home goods are usually identified by Swedish names rather than product numbers. While it’s turned into a way to further endear the brand to consumers, the practice started because Kamprad had dyslexia and was getting numerical codes confused. While charming—we enjoy ordering a desk called “Fartfull” as much as anyone—it can sometimes lead to cultural issues. The company ran into problems in 2006 when it was discovered that some harmless Scandinavian words might double as sexually explicit expressions in Thailand.
3. THE BRAND WASN'T AN IMMEDIATE HIT IN AMERICA.
After conquering the European market, IKEA opened its first American location just outside of Philadelphia in 1985. Customers had a lot of trouble pronouncing the name, and almost as much trouble figuring out the merchandise, which hadn’t yet been tailored to the market: products were advertised in centimeters, curtains didn't fit American-sized windows, and flower vases were being bought as drink tumblers because “foreign” water glasses were too small for all the ice U.S. citizens like to use. The company didn’t open any new stores for a five year period and didn’t begin to see real growth until 1997.
The persistence has paid off for both the company and consumers: Their legendary BILLY bookcase was $82 in 1985: today, it sells for $59.99.
4. THEY WANT SHOPPERS TO BE DAZED AND CONFUSED.
If navigating an IKEA leaves you feeling lost and fatigued, the layout has done its job. According to research conducted at the University College London, IKEA leads shoppers into an increasingly byzantine floor plan where they snap up impulse goods (like lamp shades or pillows), fearing they won't find them again. Likened to a "corn maze" by some visitors, there are short cuts available owing to fire regulations—but you'll miss most of the good stuff by taking them.
5. THEY WILL SEND PEOPLE TO COME WATCH YOU SIT ON A SOFA.
In an effort to better understand how universal designs fit the end user, IKEA utilizes company “anthropologists” to visit homes of brand loyalists to see how they interact with various goods. These volunteers are typically rewarded with gift cards, and their living spaces are sometimes rigged with cameras for longer-term surveillance. Among the surprises? Citizens of Shenzhen, China like to sit on the floor and use their couches as back rests.
6. THERE ARE NO WORDS IN THEIR MANUALS BECAUSE WORDS COST MONEY.
The “assembly figures” in IKEA manuals have garnered worldwide stardom for their effortless display of how to construct a coffee table or bookshelf without using profanity or becoming violent. The reason instructions aren’t printed with actual written information is because it would make the manuals thicker, and consequently more expensive to produce. Of course, the pictograms can exact their own terrible price: the company refers to more difficult-to-follow assemblies by the humorous, if outdated, term “husband killers.”
7. YOU PROBABLY VALUE THE FURNITURE MORE BECAUSE YOU ASSEMBLED IT.
It’s obvious why IKEA sells its furniture unassembled: The flat packaging saves money and passes the cost of labor on to you, the consumer, ever ready to gouge someone’s eye socket with an Allen wrench. But all the sweat and tears has its rewards. According to a Harvard Business School study, people who had to labor to set up their new purchase perceived it to have greater value than people who didn’t have to do anything.
8. CUSTOMERS IN CHINA LOVE THEIR IKEA NAPS.
In a cultural practice that probably wouldn’t go over too well in the States, visitors to IKEA’s stores in Beijing, China, are said to be very fond of curling up and taking naps in the comfortable bedding and mattress displays. Rather than put a stop to the habit, IKEA claims their staff doesn’t bother dozing customers unless they’re creating a disturbance.
9. THEY'VE BANNED HIDE AND SEEK.
While generally liberal in their policies, IKEA did put its foot down when it came to a social media fad involving people playing organized games of hide and seek in the company’s mammoth locations. After 19,000 people agreed to show up to an Amsterdam store for the game, a no-hiding, no-seeking policy was initiated. (Just take a nap instead.)
10. IKEA MALAYSIA HELD A LOOKALIKE CONTEST. FOR INANIMATE OBJECTS.
Proving IKEA’s U.S. public relations team needs to get with it, IKEA Malaysia held a contest in 2014 to help promote the reopening of one of their stores. Contestants were solicited via Facebook and asked to dress or pose as their favorite IKEA product. A surprising number of people made convincing lamps; winners received gift cards to the store.
11. THE MEATBALLS WERE ONCE MADE OF HORSE.
Even if you haven’t visited an IKEA, you’re probably aware of their reputation for delicious Swedish meatballs, a means of keeping shoppers fortified with protein while trying to escape a labyrinth of end tables. In 2013, the company issued a meatball recall in Europe after DNA studies found that one batch contained traces of horse meat. It was thought to be part of a wider contamination problem relating to devious suppliers.
12. IT'S BEING USED IN COUPLES THERAPY.
IKEA acknowledges that shopping for and then assembling larger items can take a toll on relationships. So does Santa Monica area psychologist Ramani Durvasula, who sometimes tasks couples in her therapy sessions to complete an IKEA project together and then discuss the results in counseling. One amateur craftsman told The Wall Street Journal that a bed frame took 10 hours to put together, “including two hours of arguing” with his spouse.
13. A SOAP OPERA WAS SHOT THERE.
The episodic soap opera parody IKEA Heights was filmed in a Burbank, California location in 2009 without permission from store management: actors wore hidden microphones and captured reaction shots from passing customers as they acted out hyper-dramatic plots about infidelity. In 2010, the company tried to strike a balance between having a sense of humor and reminding people that using their stores as a film set isn't really allowed. "Absolutely, we think it's funny," a spokesperson told MacCleans. "But unauthorized filming in our stores isn't a good thing."
14. THEY BUILT AN APARTMENT ON A ROCK-CLIMBING WALL.
To celebrate their 30th store in France, IKEA—known for its over-the-top ad campaigns—erected an incredible vertical apartment layout on top of a climbing wall in 2014. The public was invited to scale the prop using safety harnesses. (Not pictured: 8000 extra screws.)