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How Did IKEA Overcome the Stigma of Low Cost Materials?

By Jeff Frank

IKEA’s furniture is so accepted today that most people do not remember the challenges faced by the company during its earliest days.

I first encountered IKEA during the 1970s when it was just beginning to enter the American market. At that time I was a buyer for a large retail furniture chain.

My company sold a wide variety of furniture products at all price points. The cheapest items were made with plastics, low pressure melamines and other low cost materials.

The marketing strategy for selling low priced furniture was basically to make it look as much like the higher priced originals as possible while concealing the inferior nature of the materials and construction techniques.

My first visit to an IKEA store was a revelation. There were three different major innovations that hit me immediately:

  1. Simple and functional designs — Very little cost was wasted on ornamentation that did not have a functional purpose or in making the pieces look similar to traditional or classic furniture styles.
  2. Customer education — Large cards clearly described the inexpensive materials used in each piece of furniture in great detail. Low cost materials such as particle board and low pressure laminates were fully disclosed and described.
  3. Testing — IKEA introduced the concept of product testing to the furniture industry. One reason why the low cost materials became acceptable was because rigorous testing results were clearly described. This relieved customer concerns that the “cheap” furniture being sold would immediately fall apart.

I remember going into the next weekly buyers meeting at my company and enthusiastically recommending to the merchandise manager and the owner that we should begin creating detailed product description cards like those I saw at IKEA. My recommendations were turned down flat.

Jeff Frank is a 40 year veteran of the furniture industry. He is the owner of Simplicity Sofas, a High Point, North Carolina manufacturer specializing in custom-built Furniture for Small Spaces & Tight Places. The company sells direct to consumers nationwide through its e-commerce website.

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