The “Inconvenient” Truth About IKEA’s Customer Experience

The IKEA customer experience is hardly effortless. In a world where “ease of doing business” is prized, how does IKEA thrive?


If convenience is key in the customer experience, then how does one explain the continued success of IKEA?

The company is the world’s largest furniture retailer and arguably the only truly global furniture brand. After a three-year growth initiative focused on Europe, IKEA has now set its sights on expanding its U.S. business, recently announcing a $2 billion investment in its American operations.

The firm continues to dominate its industry, nearly doubling its annual sales over the past decade (to over $40 billion) and creating a legion of IKEA-obsessed fans. Yet it’s accomplished all of this with a customer experience that is, at many turns, just plain inconvenient:

  • Want to pick up an LED light bulb, or other small item, at IKEA? You’ve got to snake through the entire maze-like showroom to get to the warehouse section, where you can then grab the product off a shelf. With this floorplan configuration, there is no such thing as a quick “in and out” visit to IKEA.
  • If you buy a piece of furniture at IKEA, be prepared to invest some sweat equity into the endeavor, because most everything you purchase will require assembly. IKEA products come in flat-packed boxes, and while that makes them easy to transport, it also makes them challenging to build.
  • Even the furniture assembly manuals themselves are difficult to interpret, as IKEA uses stark line drawings – with no words of instruction – to describe how to build everything from a desk chair to a wall-to-wall entertainment center.

We’re trained that “ease of doing business” is critical to the success of any enterprise. There are entire books written about the importance of creating convenient and effortless customer experiences (even mine, From Impressed To Obsessed, has an entire chapter dedicated to the topic!).  Yet here, in IKEA, we have a company that is thriving despite offering an occasionally friction-filled, and potentially frustrating, customer experience.  How is that possible?

The answer lies in some basic tenets of smart customer experience (CX) design.

Is a convenient, effortless customer experience good for business? Absolutely. Is it the only way to strengthen customer engagement and loyalty? Absolutely not.

As I explain in my book, there are a discrete set of techniques that beloved businesses use to choreograph their customer interactions (making it effortless for customers is but one). Those techniques are like “universal truths” of customer experience design, meaning they can be applied to great effect in most any company and any industry. However – and this is the important takeaway – although these are universal truths of CX design, they don’t have to be applied universally.


There are a discrete set of techniques that beloved businesses use to choreograph their customer interactions.


Depending on how a business seeks to differentiate itself, it should rightfully deemphasize some of those design techniques while accentuating others. And that’s precisely what IKEA has done.

The IKEA store, itself, for example, is not designed for convenience – it’s designed for surprise. The winding path that carves through the showroom curves approximately every 50 feet, literally keeping the customer in suspense about what looms around the corner. By requiring customers to traverse the showroom in this way, IKEA fosters a sense of discovery at every turn, so people stumble across items (or entire room designs) that, while they might not have been searching for, nonetheless immediately garner their attention and interest.

Those elements of surprise and discovery feed into another technique that’s central to the IKEA experience – the notion of designing not for efficiency, but for emotion. For their target clientele, the store’s layout fosters excitement and curiosity. A visit to IKEA is akin to a treasure hunt, and it creates an emotional peak that customers enjoy and remember.

That emotional high is further reinforced by the value customers attach to IKEA furniture. The company is very focused on affordability (its low pricing is enabled, in part, by the flat-packing of its products, which helps reduce shipping and transportation costs). But IKEA customers don’t feel like they have to sacrifice style for price. Quite to the contrary – the retailer’s modern, minimalist aesthetic has its own special appeal. Therefore, rather than focusing on points of frustration, IKEA customers revel in the great deals they get, and are enamored with how IKEA helps them furnish their personal spaces in style, on a budget.

IKEA is also very adept at creating relevance in the customer experience, another very effective CX design technique.  They think broadly about what their target market really cares (or worries) about, and then engineer the customer experience to align accordingly. Customers with young children, for example, are often stressed at the prospect of furniture shopping with impatient kids in tow. In response, IKEA offers a variety of parent-friendly in-store services, such as Småland — a free, supervised play area where kids can have fun while their parents browse the showroom.

And what about the hassle of do-it-yourself furniture assembly – how does that possibly enhance the customer experience? For IKEA’s clientele, building your own stuff is a small price to pay in return for furnishing your spaces with stylish, inexpensive decor. Furthermore, people tend to feel a greater sense of emotional attachment to items that they personally have invested effort in constructing (a dynamic known as the “IKEA Effect”). So, while assembling the furniture may be a bit of a hassle, IKEA’s customers ultimately feel a sense of pride and accomplishment that casts the experience in a positive light.

These are just a few examples of why IKEA wins in the marketplace, even though the customer experience they offer is hardly effortless. Making things easy and convenient for customers is a great strategy – but there are other CX design techniques that can complement that strategy, or sometimes even overshadow it.

At IKEA, the company has made a smart, conscious choice to capitalize on some of those other strategies – techniques such as delivering surprises, stirring emotion, and creating relevance. This is why, despite all the hassle, IKEA is able to differentiate itself in the marketplace, and consistently turn everyday customers into obsessed fans.

[A version of this article originally appeared on]


Jon Picoult is founder of Watermark Consulting, a customer experience advisory firm that helps companies impress customers and inspire employees, creating raving fans that drive business growth.  Author of “FROM IMPRESSED TO OBSESSED: 12 Principles for Turning Customers and Employees into Lifelong Fans,” Picoult is an acclaimed public speaker, as well as an advisor to some of world’s foremost brands.  Follow Jon on Twitter or Instagram, or subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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