You’re driving a good 45 miles-her-hour through commercial America in your obnoxious SUV, on a street lined with fast-food chains and gas stations, dotted with strip malls and the odd car wash, when the colorful flicker of bright blue and yellow flags waving in the distance catch your eye. You steer toward them, unable to distract yourself from the colossal building that begins to reveal itself.

Dave Mekelburg
The heaven of interchangeable parts. (Courtesy of IKEA)

As the doors swoosh open, the scent of cinnamon rolls and 50-cent hot dogs overwhelm the senses. You’ll notice the customers and employees bustling about are unexpectedly chipper – these people are smiling. Children happily tag along, jumping at their parents’ heels after an hour or so in the supervised, indoor-playground equivalent to any kid’s wonderland.

It’s the North Pole of discount megastores. It’s IKEA.

Oh, to be guided through the maze-like showroom in search of the perfect bookshelf or collapsing on the rows of sofas begging to be sampled. Meandering through the Market Hall en route to the Self-Serve Area, where the words “in stock” have never sounded so beautiful. Sure, it’s exhausting, and lugging around a queen-sized mattress on a pushcart seems daunting at the end of the day, but damn is it rewarding. If you’ve never shopped at IKEA, you’ve never really shopped.

Storage lockers, pencils, paper, tape measures, store guides, computer stations and strollers. These guys have thought of everything.

But let’s not forget shoppers have come for the products themselves, and they won’t go home disappointed. IKEA relies on high quality and innovative design with a contemporary look: functionality meets aesthetics. Donned with a word of Nordic origin – according to a somewhat arbitrary product-naming system – every item also aspires to the Swedish ideal of environmental sustainability, an aspect of product design the United States has yet to champion.

And if nothing else, IKEA is cheap. I’m talking $3.99-for-a-working-desk-lamp cheap. Not even Wal-Mart can compare to those prices, let alone offer the same well-rounded business practice that IKEA trumpets.

To Americans, IKEA looks like the epitome of progressive consumerism: affordable, well-made products; eco-friendly production processes; and quality working conditions around the globe. IKEA seems to shed new light on capitalism, but to the rest of the world IKEA is old news. Founded in 1943 by Ingvar Kamprad, the Sweden-based company has more than 200 stores in 37 countries and shows no sign of slowing development. I mean, they just opened a store in Canton.

Once again, America is pitted as the impetuous teenager in need of careful instruction from the more seasoned corners of the globe. But frankly, the New World could take the tip.

It’s no secret why IKEA’s prices are so low. Experts seek out cost-effective production methods, buy inexpensive materials in volume and the customer helps out. Shoppers pick up their own merchandise, have the option of self-checkout and assemble most items at home with easy-to-follow directions and basic tools, so that you’re not charged extra for tasks you can do yourself. America doesn’t have low-cost, high-quality goods the way other developed countries do, but not because we don’t have the means – our “consumerist caste system” prevents an egalitarian approach to product design. It’s either Armani or the dollar store, with little in between (and no, Target doesn’t count). Not so in the land of IKEA.

It’s not just the customers who are treated better at IKEA; the company maintains an array of standards to protect its employees and suppliers, both in the store and factory. An IKEA rep once flew to India to redesign a toy on an emergency assignment to save the jobs of 600 Indian factory workers. It’s almost impossible to imagine an American businessman making the same trip. With a clearly outlined code of conduct, environmental guidelines and strict regulations against child labor and unsafe working conditions, IKEA is ahead of most American corporations.

IKEA probably won’t seize a global monopoly on the home furnishings market, but would it be so bad if it did? At the very least, IKEA has consistently if gradually changed the way the world approaches retail. America is only 200 years old. We still have a lot to learn – and IKEA is here to teach.

– You should see how many desk lamps Hartmann owns. Tell her she doesn’t need any more at carolinh@umich.edu.

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