Ikea Moves To High Street & Enhance Online Experience

The ever-useful Telegraph podcast revealed last week in an exclusive that Ikea were moving to the British high street (or read the BBC article). "Great" I cried on the 08.09 to Norwich. Great for several reasons. Economically the move to support Britain’s dusty, forgotten town centres is a good thing. Environmentally, the decision to accept the government's tougher stance on green-belt development is a noble one. And finally, for us shameful capitalists it's yet another opportunity to source flat pack with even greater convenience.It does also raise some interesting ergonomic considerations. The smaller high-street units will not be able to follow the same format as the gigantic hangar-style design that Ikea currently favour. For those of you that have not experienced the store you should know that the idea is that Ikea take you on a journey through their products. First through large mocked-up sitting rooms, bedrooms, offices and kitchens featuring their products in all sorts of (quite un-British) configurations. This whets the appetite and the customer is then fed (maze-like) down past the products in question, laid out in row after row of category-specific displays. Finally you end up in a huge warehouse with vast racks of flat-pack furniture on shelves. The idea is that you are, by this point, armed with reference numbers and you select the items you want and wheel them to the checkout and thence your car.These stores are not without their critics. The maze-like experience is drawn out (unless you're an expert and can short-circuit it), it becomes very crowded despite the hangar environment, it's so children-friendly that it encourages families more than other stores and it necessitates a car or van to make the most of what have to be scheduled trips. Quite how the central stores will attempt to solve these problems remains to be seen. One of the major stumbling blocks will of course be space. Will there be substantially less products but the same format, or a different format and an small reduction in choice? What would this new format take? The most obvious solution would be to have a small number of key mock-ups which change regularly and then have a limited homeware-style browsing area. Presumably any other items required could be ordered in or identified at out-of-town stores. The most challenging aspect is delivery. Town centres are clogged with traffic or pedestrianised, not really conducive to backing-up the family car to fill it with flat pack is it? Customer experience is a definite corollary of store design in the traditional retail environment – as much customer experience is of web site design. (Here's a good piece on store design and customer experience).

Currently, Ikea’s online experience has come up for some criticism. Take this observation for example (which holds true as at 16.01.06): "Take IKEA's search box. If you do a search for "sofa," you get 21 product hits, none of which are actually sofas. The hits include Ice Cube Tray SODA (for the uninitiated, IKEA names all of its products) and Pillowcase SOVA....If you navigate to IKEA's products page and pull up sofas, you see plenty: over a dozen fabric sofas alone. None of these, however, show up from the search box." [source: Line56.com]

Clearly here there is a disconnect between the in-store experience, where the Swedish naming convention is actually quite a quirky way of identifying a particular product, and the on-line experience where it hampers a natural search. There is, of course, a basic fix here – applying a category marker to products that is identified in the search but it the online team at Ikea haven’t spotted this in a major online marketplace such as the US, you do fear for their implementation in the UK. Ikea’s current UK site is a dumb product catalogue, where you can browse for items and find out id they’re in-stock at your nearest store. The most customer-centric element of their site is a Lingubot, ‘Ask Anna’, which, unlike some implementations, actually appears to be quite effective in solving problems and making suggestions – even serving-up relevant page content.

I look forward to seeing how Ikea progress online and in-town. My guess is though that they’d have to make some pretty big mistakes to dent what is perceived as being a very attractive, customer-centric brand.

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