Flatpack Flashpoints

What's going wrong at Ikea?

This week, a 6,000-strong crowd stampeded at the launch of a new store in north London, forcing the Swedish retailer to close the doors just 40 minutes after they opened at midnight. Nine ambulances were called and three people taken to hospital with injuries.

One woman was said to have been threatened by a man with a mallet, and another waiting in the checkout queue was "mugged" for her cut-price sofa. Security guards were reported to have fled the scene and police are investigating an incident near the store in which a man was stabbed.

It's not the first time an Ikea store opening has gone seriously wrong. Last September, three men were trampled to death in a rush to claim vouchers when Ikea opened its first store in Saudi Arabia.

Some commentators reckon historians might look back on these Ikea "riots" as the precursor of some kind of "fundamentalist consumerism" or "guerilla shopping" wars.

More likely it's another warning sign that Ikea is losing touch with its customers. Recent months have seen customer backlashes against Ikea's imposition of extra fees on shoppers who dare to pay by credit card or use its car park.

The October issue of Fast Company profiled Dan Cathy, president of Atlanta-based restaurant chain Chick-fil-A. Last year, Cathy camped out overnight with customers at 16 new store openings because he believes leadership is about getting close to his patrons and championing the customer experience on their behalf.

Maybe it's time Ikea bosses rolled out their sleeping bags too.

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  • M. Russell Stewart

    Maybe it has something to do with grand openings in areas with large populations of football (soccer) or NBA basketball fans. The incidents seem all too similar.


  • Cortney

    When the IKEA opened up in College Park, MD (the closest one to DC) the beltway was backed up for miles. That is just people trying to get into the parking lot. There is something to be said for people who think that going to a store opening is good. Personally, I'd rather lose the chance at a bargain (everything at IKEA is one already) and save the headache of the crowds. As for Chick-Fil-A, they opened one around the corner from me last fall. I couldn't figure out WHY people where sitting on the sidewalk the morning before it opened. Turns out, you get a year's supply of food. However, Chick-Fil-A didn't have this promotion plastered all over everything and the crowd was small and manageable.

  • David

    The Ikea situation is not that unusual.

    In the 1990s, I was the Marketing Director for Virgin Cinemas, the Branson company racing Odeon and Warner Brothers for leadership in the new multiplex market. In actuality we ran last among that more established duo.

    Working to open a new small multiplex in an eastern UK town, we created a not-wildly-unusual product launch program to blanket the area with advertisements and special offer marketing during the fortnight preceding opening day. The program was similar in scope to what Virgin Megastores and other large scale retailers used for new store openings. We spent only modest money to combine local bus sides (banner ads on sides of busses), morning and evening drive-time radio ads and DJ-supported give-aways of free tickets, movie posters and related items, and Virgin-branded promotional trinkets.

    Opening day's main attraction was unlimited viewing of all movies. We arranged a pre-release screening of a wide-release film pumped as the blockbuster of the season. Our marketing on top of that for the movie created a very high turnout on the morning of the Grand Opening, hours before we planned to open the doors.

    We attracted many more people than the venue could hold when completely sold out. We attracted many times more people than we could accommodate if every single show were completely sold out all day and night long. Attempting to line people up using standard, bank lobby issue "rope lines" was successful until we allowed the first people to approach the cinema doors. Very quickly (and I do mean very quickly) the crowd pressed itself against the doors, rather like dominos press themselves against one another when one in the front is toppled from behind. The doors opened toward the crowd,an important fact, as it was very difficult to then open those doors to allow people into the cinema and relieve the pressure on several customers in danger of injury.

    Seeing the situation escalate, I suggested we call the police to assist us in moving the crowd back away from the doors. What do you suppose was the response from more senior management? No hard brainwork to figure out a story on the national news about poor planning and possible customer injuries would have caused us no end of trouble.

    The Virgin brand is among the most notable in the UK. Branson sneezes and it's in the tabloids (the papers we cultivated for the marketing program, and which would just as happily have flayed us for our mistakes as hyped us up.)

    Ultimately, everyone entered the cinema without injury and the day proceeded with greater ease. We decided to distribute the tickets to everyone in the lines waiting outside instead of using our standard clerk-behind-the-counter system. This relieved the need to enter the cinema to obtain tickets.

    How did we come so close to a major problem?

    a) We were given bad advice by the more experienced people in the Virgin company who had opened venues of similar scale. The people who opened the Megastores never hinted the crowd might behave as a mob. It should have occurred to someone.

    b) More experienced Cinemas executives seemed equally un-foresightful, or un-hindsightful, for that matter

    c) Local law enforcement authorities were not involved in the planning of the opening. Only after local streets became clogged with traffic attempting access to the car park, were the police part of the day's events.

    d) At the moment of truth (there is always a managerial moment of truth where the monster and management come face to face, forcing a pivotal decision,) we chose to hope for the best rather than seek assistance which might have more quickly assured everyone's safety

    e) We underestimated the power of our brand. Hard to believe anyone in a Virgin store could do that; most everyone in the company thought it was the greatest invention since celluloid or popcorn for three pounds fifty a bucket

    f) We underestimated the power of modest amounts of media coverage in a small, suburban market

    g) We underestimated the power of FREE anything in an area where incomes were modest, or even low

    h) I believe this one is primary of all the mistakes we made - We didn't show enough care for our customers, our staff and our business. In our quest for the most exposure and the biggest impact possible, we nearly got our wish. We simply did not ask what our customers that day would need to be not just entertained and impressed by our beautiful venue, but comfortable and safe, too. “What do they need?” simply never crossed our minds.

    For all our supposed awareness of our power, for all the deep-down belief we were creating cinemas that would revolutionize the cinema experience in the UK (revolutionizing an experience is THE central theme of all Virgin thinking), for all the pride about our innovations, we simply never walked over to the other side and peered out the eyes of our customer to see how what we were doing might be experienced, how it might be evaluated, felt, approached and consumed.

    This sort of perceptual positioning is critical in marketing. Else, a company experiences what we did that day - the reflection of all our thinking right back to all our own eyes, with the customer no where in sight.

  • LP (UK FC reader)

    When I heard this on the radio, I had to check my PDA to make sure it wasn't April 1st. I know Edmonton is one of London's most deprived areas, but this kind of thing just hasn't happened in England in living memory.

    If there's any management lesson to be learned from this, it's "expect the unexpected".

    As for "consumer fundamentalism": building cult status for a brand is all very well, but I'm not sure about the human sacrifice part. Maybe that's why so many stores want their employees to wear easily washable tabards and aprons these days. There shall be no gods before GigantaMart, and we shall destroy any infidel who speaketh otherwise...

  • Eric

    no different than the Xmas time mobs at WalMart. Or have you already forgotten those crushing episodes?

  • Simon

    In an odd signal that the class system is alive in well in Mery Olde England, the member of parliament for the area criticised IKEA, hitting out at the company for offering cheap flat-pack furniture in a "poor" area: http://www.turkishweekly.net/n....

    As if the ladies of Chelsea would have acted with any more civility!

  • Peter

    I'm not sure either, how an organisation is primarily responsable for how its clients interact! True they do have control over how comes in and the culture of the premises, but lets be honest here, the external enviroment is far greater than any of us can control or understand!

  • edward

    What? I'm not sure how IKEA is to blame for crazy customers...and I've never heard of them charging fees to park or use a credit-card. Where are all these rumours coming from?