19 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of IKEA Employees

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Chances are good you have a piece of IKEA furniture in your home. Perhaps you’re even sitting on an IKEA couch, reading at an IKEA desk, or lying in an IKEA bed right now. The Swedish company is the world’s largest furniture retailer, selling billions of dollars worth of goods each year, from BILLY bookcases to GLIMMA tealights. Its massive blue-and-yellow stores are kept well-stocked and running smoothly thanks to the efforts of more than 150,000 employees (or as IKEA calls them, “coworkers”) across the globe. We spoke with a few of them about what it’s like to work for one of the world’s most recognizable retail stores: 

1. THE IKEA PATHWAY HAS A CODE NAME.

It’s no secret IKEA’s maze-like showrooms are designed to take shoppers through every department, from the kitchen to the textiles, making sure they lay eyes on as many goods as possible. "One could describe it as if IKEA grabs you by the hand and consciously guides you through the store in order to make you buy as much as possible," Johan Stenebo, an IKEA veteran, wrote in his book, The Truth About Ikea

The winding walkway is known lovingly among employees as the “Long Natural Path” or the “Long Natural Way.” According to a 2011 New Yorker article by Lauren Collins, the pathway is supposed to curve every 50 feet to prevent shoppers from getting bored. 

2. THERE ARE SECRET SHORTCUTS.

Need to get to bedding but don’t want to walk through textiles, bathroom, and living room first? Stuck on the top floor but need a quick way to ground level? Take a shortcut.

There are multiple quick routes through the store, both for safety reasons and stocking reasons, and they’re open to the public. But they’re not advertised, so you’ll need a keen eye for secret passageways. Often they take the form of unmarked service doors. 

“If you know where to look, you’ll find them,” says Paula, who worked at an IKEA store in Houston for a year. At her store, there was a shortcut route that started with an unmarked door near the escalators. “Nobody’s going to stop you unless it explicitly says ‘employees only,’ but other than that you can open doors and you’d be amazed,” she says. 

“I love IKEA, but sometimes you just need to get in and out in like 20 minutes,” says Marie, who worked at IKEA for 11 years. If that’s the case, just ask an employee to give you the quickest route to your destination and they’ll point you to the nearest shortcut. 

3. BUT DON’T GET TOO USED TO THOSE SHORTCUTS.

“They’re always changing,” says Paul Robertson, who worked for 10 years at IKEA Canada. “They used to change them fairly frequently because we had a lot of repeat business, so customers would get familiar with the shortcuts and know how to zip through. After a while they would change the shortcuts to force people to go around the long way again.” 

4. THE WALLS MOVE.

According to Paula, the partitions that enclose IKEA’s various showrooms are on rollers and can be moved. “They have a lock on them so people can’t randomly move them,” Paula says. “At the end of the night we move all the walls out of the way so we have a straight shot to where the trash is.” This also makes it easier to remodel the display rooms. 

5. PEOPLE BUY THE ROOMS THAT ARE ON DISPLAY.

Speaking of the display rooms, occasionally customers will decide they like an entire room so much, they’ll order it as-is. “There have been people that come in and see a room and like everything there and they take it,” Paula says. 

6. THE “OPEN THE WALLET” SECTION

IKEA stores are littered with piles of small, practical items that are so cheap they’re hard to pass up. These areas are called the “Open The Wallet” sections. “There, an abundance of cheap goods—flowerpots, slippers, lint rollers—encourages the customer to make a purchase, any purchase, the thinking being that IKEA shoppers buy either nothing or a lot,” Collins writes in the New Yorker

According to Rob, a two-year IKEA veteran, this area was located at the bottom of the stairs on the second floor at his store. “It’s basically impulse buys,” he says. “It’s a lot of very cheap items, things that look practical, useful, something you didn’t realize you wanted.” The next thing you know you’re shoving five packs of tea candles and a bunch of plastic hangers into your yellow shopping bag, when all you really came in for was a desk lamp.  

7. BULLA BULLA

Another method for getting people to add things to their bags is known internally as the “bulla bulla” technique. Big bins are stuffed to the point of overflowing with hundreds of items “to create the impression of volume and, therefore, inexpensiveness,” Collins writes

“One of the big things is the sort of jumbo bin, they love that,” says Robertson. “If stock starts running low there, fill it back up. Pile it high. Customers think they’re getting a deal.” 

8. YES, YOU CAN NAP ON THE FURNITURE ...

The displays are meant to be touched, tested, and experienced. If you want to curl up on an IKEA couch or sprawl out on the bed, go for it. “You are allowed to sit on the beds,” says Paula, “but if you’ve been there for two or three hours, we have to wake you up.” 

This is a particularly well-documented phenomenon in China, where shoppers have been photographed snoozing all over the showroom. “We don’t see it as a problem,” IKEA spokesman Josefin Thorell told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re happy people feel at home in our stores. Certainly, it entails a little extra work for the staff, purely practically. But on the other hand, if customers try out our furniture and like it, we can sell an extra mattress or two.”

9. ... BUT YOU PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO.

According to Jana, an IKEA employee in Texas, the pillows on the display beds get swapped out once a month at her store, and the pillowcases only get changed when they are visibly dirty. The same goes for blankets and duvet covers. “I changed a bunch of duvet covers yesterday because from people touching the same corner every day, it looked dingy,” she says. “If we see something and think it looks gross, it needs to be changed.” 

10. THEY WISH YOU’D STOP OPENING THINGS.

“Customers will open anything and everything,” says Jana. “Everything in that store, we have on display. You can touch it, feel it, lay your face on it, but for some reason they’ll open the package and then leave it there. What they don’t understand is when they open certain things, we can’t resell them, so we have to scan them out.” 

11. THEY’RE TRAINED NOT TO OFFER HELP.

If you’re the passive-aggressive type of shopper, you’re bound to be disappointed at IKEA. Employees are given specific instructions to let the customers come to them if they need assistance. “You were supposed to only help customers if they asked you for it,” says Rob. “We were told that’s a very Scandinavian way of how stores work.” The same rule applies in the warehouse, where customers are expected to find and lift their own items unless it’s obvious they need assistance.  

12. THE BOOKS IN THE SHOWROOM OFTEN COME FROM EMPLOYEES’ OWN LIBRARIES.

IKEA’s sample rooms often feature towering bookshelves, but empty shelves aren’t particularly inviting. So, employees are asked to bring books from their own collection to fill the blank space. “All of that was stuff we owned,” Rob says. Usually they were asked to bring books that matched a certain color scheme. And you couldn’t bring in anything racy. “You had to use your common sense,” Rob says. “Nothing pornographic or anything.” 

13. THE MOST POPULAR ITEMS ARE …

The BILLY bookcase and the LACK table.

14. THE SERIAL NUMBERS CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

According to Robertson, there’s some rhyme and reason to the eight-digit code linked to each IKEA item. “While I was there, it was that the last two numbers would tell you what color the item was. So let’s say it ended in 40, it was blue. That would mean the 4 range was blue, so 41 might be light blue and 42 would be dark blue.” 

Many of the names have meaning, too. According to Collins at the New Yorker, “traditionally, the names of IKEA’s bookcases derive from different occupations; curtains are given names from mathematics; and bathroom products are named for lakes and rivers.”  

15. THEY WITNESS A LOT OF ARGUMENTS.

“If you really wanna test your relationship, go through IKEA and buy something,” says Jana. “I guess they just get stressed and overwhelmed that the store’s so big. I had a couple trying to make a decision on a rug and he was mad and she was on verge of tears. Then we were out of the rug they wanted, which made it even worse.”

Lovers' quarrels are so common in the store that at least one psychologist told the Wall Street Journal she has her bickering clients construct the Nornäs coffee table as a relationship-building exercise. Janice Simonsen, design spokeswoman for IKEA U.S., also told the paper she spent five years as a furnishings consultant and created a list of guidelines specifically for couples planning a trip to the store. 

16. THEY SPEAK IN CODE.

When “Code 22” comes over the intercom, it’s a distress call from the cash lanes. “We usually hear it around rush hour or on weekends,” says Jana. “It means the cash lanes are backed up into the warehouse. Anyone in the store who is register-trained has to go to the front and help.” 

If a lost kid is wandering the store (which happens a lot), Jana says managers use “Code 99” to put all employees on alert. “There are so many wardrobes to hide in or bed skirts to hide under,” says Marie. “If a kid really wanted to be hidden it would not be too hard.” 

17. THINGS GET WILD AFTER HOURS.

“At the end of night, they’d open all the walls and we’d have a big empty space and there would be pallet jack races,” Paula recalls. 

And there’s perhaps no better place to play hide-and-seek than in a massive, multiple-story maze stuffed with nooks and crannies. “On closing shifts, one guy I worked with would always manage to have me distracted, then he’d go hide in the store,” says Robertson. “So I would have to finish up tasks, walk through the store knowing somewhere along the way he would jump out at me, and he got me all the time.” 

18. THEY GET GREAT CHRISTMAS GIFTS.

IKEA is pretty well-known for having good employee perks, including its end-of-year gifts, which range from electronics to plane tickets. “The first year I worked there they gave out bikes,” says Rob. “This year they gave out Rokus.” Paula says her store gave employees who had been specially recognized by their coworkers the chance to win plane tickets to anywhere in the world.

19. PINTEREST DRIVES SALES.

Pinterest Screenshot

Employees can tell when an item has been featured in a viral Pinterest project because it sells out quickly. “There was one specific spice rack we were constantly sold out of,” says Paula. “Someone had gone on Pinterest and said you can paint it and make it a bookshelf for picture books for toddlers. We had to tell people, ‘If you’re here for the spice rack, we don’t have it.’” 

(For reference, it’s called the BEKVÄM spice rack.) 

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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January 7, 2016 - 4:00pm
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