Ikea as suburban economic engine and sign of suburban change

The wealthy Indianapolis suburb of Fishers now has an Ikea and the community hopes it spurs economic growth:

When Ikea opens Wednesday, it could alter the character of this northern suburb city from a drowsy residential nook into a dynamic regional shopping mecca. The giant Swedish furniture retailer’s gravitational pull has already attracted other businesses nearby and prompted major highway and road work.

Which is why city officials expect the residents to get along just fine with the new kid. For one thing, Ikea has cache, even if the store is three times the size of a Walmart. For another, Ikea’s guests are quiet and well-behaved. And most importantly, Ikea will contribute millions of dollars to the local economy in sales taxes and in-town spending at other stores…

But for Mayor Scott Fadness and the City Council, the wave of development is the cornerstone to expanding and defining the city. It follows a similarly aggressive flurry of construction just blocks away, across I-69 in downtown proper, now called the Nickel Plate District. Over a five-year period, the city encouraged residential and business development to get people living and working downtown. Two high-rent apartment buildings with first-floor restaurants and shops were built next to City Hall and several high-tech firms set up shop nearby, earning Fishers the reputation as a technology hub…

Ikea asserts, and experts agree, that it’s 44 U.S. stores draw customers from as far as 200 miles, and they spend money at more places than just the furniture store.

It is not enough for many places to be well-regarded bedroom suburbs: many of these communities now want more.

  1. An expanded tax base. Bringing in businesses means more money for local services and a reduced tax burden for residents.
  2. Excitement about the community. Many postwar suburbs have experienced decades of development. Newer suburbs or exciting urban neighborhoods offer new options. How will a high-status suburb stay on the radar screens of people within the region and elsewhere? New development always brings excitement.
  3. A new vision for the future. What will the suburb look like in the 21st century? Can they develop new plans and visions? The postwar suburban era is over; what will these suburbs look like by 2050?
  4. Number two and number three above are linked to attracting young professionals. These are high-status people who can contribute to the tax base, provide employees that high-end employers want, and bring energy to the community.

The moves in Fishers echo those of many other suburbs across the United States. Some, like Fishers, are well-positioned with their wealth and location to take advantage of possible opportunities. Others will pursue some of these options but ultimately lack the ability and/or resources to carry them out.

Cracking down on massive hide-and-seek games in Ikea stores

Ikea in the Netherlands has banned viral hide-and-seek games inside its stores:

Ikea has quashed the dreams and shortened the bucket lists of tens of thousands people, saying it won’t allow several guerrilla hide-and-seek games to take place in its stores in the Netherlands. “It’s hard to control,” an Ikea spokeswoman told Bloomberg. “We need to make sure people are safe in our stores and that’s hard to do if we don’t even know where they are.”

More than 57,000 people were invited to participate in a May 16 game of hide-and-seek at the Ikea in Eindhoven, Netherlands, according to a Facebook page for the event, with about 32,000 people RSVPing. Twelve thousand were invited to a similar event at an Ikea in the Netherlands’ Breda on May 9. Had either game moved forward, it could easily have broken Guinness’ record for the world’s largest game of hide-and-seek, which was set in January 2014 in China and involved a mere 1,437 participants.

While this isn’t the first time Ikea has contended with plans for massive hide-and-seek outings in its stores, it may be the first time the company has banned them outright. A game that took place in 2009 at an Ikea in Sweden reportedly attracted about 150 people and forced organizers to apologize for the “whooping and cheering” that scared customers straight out of the store. And when thousands of people in Melbourne, Australia, signed up to play hide-and-seek at an Ikea the following year, the company said it would “discourage” customers from participating in the event but would not “go so far as to ban them.”

At any rate, the more interesting question here is how many people an Ikea store could reasonably host for a game of hide-and-seek, were the company’s management to get on board. The Eindhoven store, which opened in 1992, is 28,600 square meters, according to Ikea’s website. That’s about the same as four standard soccer pitches, or 5? American football fields. Let’s stipulate that for a really good game of hide-and-seek, you need at least 20 square meters (about 225 square feet, or a 15-foot-by-15-foot spot to stand in). Less than that and you might as well play sardines or blob tag instead. Also, presumably not all 28,600 square meters in the Eindhoven store are usable space, or even accessible to customers looking for hiding spots.

Think of all the hiding places! I’m not surprised that safety was the primary reason for banning the games though I assume the real reason was that this could be bad for business. (Yet, how many of the game players would purchase something – from meatballs to another Billy bookcase) on the way out?) If you think about it, a lot of businesses could be overwhelmed by such viral efforts. (Maybe all those extra parking spots mandated in American parking lots would then be filled.) How far away are we from outright bans on indoor games in multiple countries or from other stores and businesses as well?

At the same time, why doesn’t Ikea turn the tables on this and host some special hide-and-seek events with a lottery system for participants. This could generate good publicity and reestablish the brand’s cool factor.

Ikea is raising pay to help workers but many who need jobs can’t easily make it to their suburban locations

Jamelle Bouie points out that Ikea is doing a good thing in raising wages but their jobs aren’t easily accessible to many who need them:

With that said, it’s worth noting that there’s less than meets the eye to Ikea’s promise to hew to local and municipal minimum wage hikes. Most Ikea stores are located in suburbs, as opposed to urban centers. The Ikea near Charlotte, North Carolina, for instance, is located on the outskirts of the area, as is the Ikea near Seattle (in Renton) and the one in Dallas (near Frisco). By virtue of geography, these stores will avoid city-mandated wage hikes.

What’s more, for as much as Ikea and similar stores might be good for workers, their overwhelmingly suburban locations make them isolated from large numbers of potential workers who lack employment opportunities in their own areas and neighborhoods…

The result is that, for both groups—but low-income blacks in particular—there is a “spatial mismatch” between neighborhoods and employment opportunities.

Put simply, the greater the sprawl of jobs in an area, the less likely it is that black residents will have easy and reliable access to them. Or, as UCLA professor Michael Stoll writes in a 2005 paper for the Brookings Institution, “Blacks are more geographically isolated from jobs in high job-sprawl areas regardless of region, metropolitan area size, and their share of metropolitan population.” And this isn’t an accident: “Metropolitan areas characterized by higher job sprawl also exhibit more severe racial segregation between blacks and whites,” he writes.

All of this is exacerbated by our shoddy, car-centric transportation policy. To get to any job in a place like Virginia Beach, Virginia—where 10- to 15-mile drives are a fact of life—you need a car. Yes, there is a public transportation system, but it’s irregular (the agency had a rate of 18 missed trips per day in March), limited in scope, and unreliable for most workers who need to be on time. But cars are expensive, and black and Latino households are much less likely to own cars than their white counterparts. What comes next is predictable: Plenty of low-income people can’t find or keep jobs because they are isolated from opportunities.

All correct though the increasing number of lower-income suburban residents may be closer to some of these Ikea stores. At the same time, most suburban residents will still need cars to get to the store, vehicles that are relatively expensive parts of household budgets.

Additionally, this helps highlight some of the contradictory nature of Ikea. On one hand, it is a quirky store in the American landscape, exposing Americans to interesting designs and promoting a more DIY mentality. On the other hand, it is just another big box store with locations near major highways, big parking lots, and lots of square footage.

Ikea survey on American home patterns

Here is one snarky interpretation of some interesting data from a recent Ikea survey of Americans:

Only 1% [of those surveyed] want their home to reflect how successful they have been.
Analysis: This may seem surprising, but in fact Americans often choose to lie to surveys to make themselves appear more humble…

43% state they have assigned seating in their living room.
Analysis: Americans care deeply about personal property and annex even the smallest items…

31% of people with pets answered that the pet cuddles with them in bed “every night.”
Analysis: American pets do not respect boundaries.

I’ve wondered why sociologists don’t spend more time studying what Americans do in their homes. I could see why companies like Ikea want such information (see the survey results here): they want to sell us things for our homes. While such research questions may seem intrusive, Americans have created a superior private realm that keeps them away from community life (the interpretation of several New Urbanists in Suburban Nation) so something interesting must be going on at home, right? We know that Americans consume lots of television (lots of studies on this) and find ways to handle housework (lots of studies on this) but what about regular interactions? What about what they think about what their own home says about themselves? What do they do when left alone in their own homes? Surveys could help us get at this but participant observation would also help: seeing Americans in their natural and prized personal settings.One book that does do some of this is one I read a while back in grad school called The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self. Also, Pierre Boudieu’s classic Distinction looks at numerous household items and activities.

A little bit more on one of the Ikea questions (page 3 of the PDF):

How do Americans feel about home?
•95% say home is a place they can relax
•94% feel their home is a place where they feel
safe and secure
• 78% stated their home reflects their character
•50% believe that when it comes to life at home,
the top priority is for the home to be warm and
welcoming
• Only 1% want their home to reflect how successful
they have been

It is interesting how many Americans don’t want the home to reflect their success but it should reflect their character. Critics of McMansions might charge that the reason those homeowners bought such homes was to try to impress other people.

IKEA in China allowing all sorts of activities in addition to shopping

IKEA in China is allowing patrons to hang out:

Sociologist Sangyoub Park forwarded us a fascinating account of Ikea’s business model … for China. In the U.S., there are rather strict rules about what one can do in a retail store. Primarily, one is supposed to shop, shop the whole time, and leave once one’s done shopping. Special parts of the store might be designated for other activities, like eating or entertaining kids, but the main floors are activity-restricted.

Not in China. Ikea has become a popular place to hang out. People go there to read their morning newspaper, socialize with friends, snuggle with a loved one, or take a nap. Older adults have turned it into a haunt for singles looking for love. Some even see it as a great place for a wedding.

This stands in contrast to efforts in some McDonald’s in the United States to limit how long patrons can stay. But, this stance might be ingenious for more companies:

1. It may raise the image of the company. It is a cool place to be. Oh yeah, you can buy stuff there as well.

2. In areas that lack public spaces, these retail locations can serve an important function.

3. It may just lead to more sales. Unfortunately, stories like this often don’t include this information.

An overview of IKEA’s new 26-acre redevelopment in London’s East End

Here is a quick look at IKEA’s large redevelopment project in London’s East End:

The new project is only the first step of Ikea’s journey into urbanism. Inter Ikea’s LandProp division has acquired a second parcel north of London and has initiated talks for a $1.45 billion project in Birmingham twice the size of the one in London; it has reportedly shopped for sites in Hamburg, Germany, too. LandProp also intends to build a hundred budget hotels across Europe and is considering a push into student housing, all covered by the stores’ bottomless cash flow. “Once we decide to do something, we go like a tank,” said LandProp’s chief, Harald Muller, at Strand East’s unveiling in 2011. (Citing overwhelming media interest, LandProp refused repeated requests for an interview.)…

The new town within a town pursues this dual goal by putting the Swedish vision of the folkhemmet (the “people’s home”) to the test. It’s a utopian dream that dovetails nicely with the aim of London officials to use the Olympic legacy to address historic inequalities in the city’s East End. Plans for Strand East depict car-free streets lined with low-slung multifamily town houses, while smaller homes face the back alleys in an echo of London’s beloved mews. Of the 1,200 homes and apartments, LandProp promises that 40% will be large enough for families; another 15% will be set aside for affordable housing, for which London has considerable pent-up demand. The remainder of the site will consist of public squares and parks, with mid-rise commercial districts along the edges.

So far, urbanists are impressed with what they’ve seen of the project. “Compared to the towering cities popping up around the world, Strand East is a quaint, pleasant surprise, mixing old and new in a way that gives the area an uncommon sense of history and place,” says Paul Kroese, strategic adviser for the International New Town Institute. The plans are of a piece with Ikea’s other ventures, too. “Ikea wants to build a world that leverages its knowledge of how people live,” says Steen Kanter, a former top Ikea executive in the United States who today runs his own consultancy, Kanter International. “And it’s a good way to gain expertise installing kitchens and wardrobes and other large environments.”

Indeed, some retail analysts suggest that Strand East is both a branding exercise for Ikea and a living laboratory for a renewed drive into housing. The company has been trying to crack the U.K. market since 1997, when it intro duced a flat-pack home. The BoKlok comes in three configurations (none larger than 800 square feet), with prices starting at about $112,500. (The houses are assembled by Ikea’s construction partner, Skanska.) More than 4,900 BoKloks have been built to date in Scandinavia, but it hasn’t caught on in the United Kingdom despite recently renewed interest in prefab housing.

Curbed sums up some of the more interesting aspects of the project:

1. Included in Ikea’s masterplan: shops, schools, theaters, a hotel, and, you know, apartments for 6,000 people.

2. Strangely absent? An actual Ikea store.

3. Starting prices for the town’s flat-pack houses, called BoKlock, are less than half the price of an average U.K. house—$112,500 vs. $260,850...

5. Of the 1,200 houses to be built, 40 percent will be large enough for families, and 15 percent of them will be earmarked as affordable housing...

7. The whole shebang will supposedly cost around $500M.

We’ll see what happens. Even if this wasn’t built with IKEA, there could be some questions about the design, how successful it will be as a mixed-income neighborhood, and how it will fit in with the surrounding area. While people seem interested in how might affect IKEA’s global image, I would be more interested to know how the community itself will relate to IKEA as developer and major corporation. The experiences of a place like Celebration, Florida and Disney suggest this can be a convoluted process that both attracts a certain kind of resident but can lead to governance and identity issues.

Microsoft promo videos feature a preponderence of McMansions?

In the middle of a “Xbox music preview,” Paul Thurrot makes an interesting observation about the homes shown in Microsoft promotional videos:

A promotional video then ensued. It was loud and peppy and featured the same overly-white, McMansion-living trendy families that always seem to exist in Microsoft’s promo videos since this is the only life that Microsoft employees in Redmond area understand. But it reveals a few interesting clues about how the Zune Music service will be changing and evolving as it becomes Xbox Music…

I don’t know how accurate this observation is as I don’t regularly watch tech industry promo videos. However, let’s assume it is true. Perhaps McMansion owners are more likely to purchase Microsoft products so Microsoft is simply portraying its target demographic. Perhaps Microsoft critics would love to tie Microsoft to McMansions and put together ideas that Microsoft simply mass produces products that don’t work well in the long run.

What are particular companies or perhaps products that would work well in advertisements with McMansions? A few ideas:

1. McDonald’s. An easy connection: mass production, supersizing, quantity over quality. Both have their enthusiastic detractors. Both seem to continue on anyhow (see this recent piece about a recent jump in sales of McMansions).

2. SUVs. These are commonly put together as symbols of excess and environmental waste. A Hummer would work well here. But what about a Honda CR-V or a Toyota Rav4?

3. Home Depot or any other big box home improvement store. Your mass produced McMansion is falling apart after five years or you need materials for a big brick fireplace on your 300 square foot patio? Save money and buy whatever you need here.

Contrast this with companies that might rather drop dead than be caught advertising with McMansions. Apple: not exactly the image they are trying to portray. Ikea tends to go with smaller spaces. Trendy companies as well as green products likely want to avoid being tied to McMansions.