Apart, perhaps, from Abba and Volvo, nothing says Sweden more than Ikea. With its trendy pine furniture, rainbow-coloured curtains and cushions in traditional folk prints, the retailer changed the way British homes looked when it arrived in the late 80s.
But more than 20 years on, Ikea's UK chief Martin Hansson has done some soul-searching and wants its stores to "feel more British". While "Swedish" favourites such as the distinctive Pendel floor clock and Birgit quilt covers are part of the fabric of many homes, the retailer is trying to broaden its appeal with products tailored to British tastes, which include dark wood and higher beds that are "easier to get in and out of". It has also created a wardrobe that is just 35cm deep as Hansson confesses its Swedish based design team had previously failed to take on board "bay windows and chimney breasts" and the space constraints of living on a small island. "People are furnishing some of the smallest living spaces in Europe," he says. "The average house has 85 sq m of floorspace and in new builds' it's just 76 sq m."
The Ikea look is inspired by the fact that Sweden is "cold and dark for much of the year" with the light, bright colours creating "summer sunshine indoors all year round". It may rain a lot here, but Hansson says customer research found that while Britons are happy to incorporate the Scandinavian aesthetic, there is also a hankering for home furnishings in muted tones and an aspiration to create a "country" style even in suburbia. "What we need to do is make ourselves more British but at the same time linked to the overall vision," he adds. "It is about how we can be more relevant."
Despite gripes about bad service and hours spent looking for the exit, UK consumers long ago made peace with flatpacks and Allen keys. Ikea is now the country's largest furniture retailer by some margin. Profits for the year to last August increased to £35.7m, from £17m in the previous 12 months. Sales climbed 1% to £1.2bn
Ikea's progress was all the more admirable given the tough trading environment: analysts at Verdict estimate the slump has cost the furniture market nearly £2bn in lost sales. Verdict analyst Neil Saunders says that back in 2008 it was worth £12.5bn but had withered to £10.7bn by last year; it has stabilised but is predicted to contract by 0.5% in 2011.
Last week Kingfisher chief executive Ian Cheshire said the run of good weather had given a boost to sales of garden paraphernalia like barbecues and decking at its B&Q chain but that if you squinted through the sunshine, nothing had changed: "The sun coming out doesn't give people more money to spend."
Hansson says the warm spring has brought mixed blessings for the furniture giant: "So far, spring has been challenging and it is difficult to see any pattern. We had some hopes around April but we were competing against eating out and holidays."
With inflation riding high, he says Ikea's response to the squeeze will be to lower its prices when the new catalogue comes out in August. "People are having a tough time so it is up to us to be more affordable and accessible," he says.
Saunders says: "Making the offer more in tune with British tastes is an opportunity to strengthen the relationship it has with existing customers as well as getting new ones to take a look." He predicts Ikea could lift its share of the furniture market from 8.4% to more than 10% in the next couple of years. "Ikea has a strong taste proposition that is distinctive and enduring. Five years ago, Ikea had a one-size-fits-all approach but now it is considering local sensitivities and Martin Hansson has been very good at interpreting what they are in the UK."
Few consumers genuinely relish the trek to Ikea's crowded blue and yellow sheds, but Hansson insists things have changed. It has introduced shortcuts in stores to enable shoppers – some of whom had resorted to setting off the fire alarms to get out – to make a beeline for the toilets or fresh air, rather than retrace their steps through every department. Moreover, the entire furniture range can now be bought online. At the moment it is also testing a handful of service initiatives including having purchases packed and posted to you as well as a staff member to act as your personal shopper, albeit for a £15 charge. "We see the potential to improve the quality of our service," says Hansson.
Ikea is also trying to shake off its secretive reputation and has begun publishing details of its finances and complex ownership structure – its parent company is based in the Netherlands for what are thought to be tax purposes. These recent changes have coincided with the publication of a highly critical book that claimed Ikea remained the fiefdom of its billionaire founder, Ingvar Kamprad, with top management jobs reserved for Swedes and few women executives among its upper echelons.
Hansson, who has been running the UK division for more than two years, is keen to highlight an internal programme that has significantly improved engagement levels with its workforce here, cutting staff turnover. "We have been through a tough climate but, internally, motivation levels have increased," he says, highlighting what it calls a "backpacker" scheme in which high-flying twentysomethings are sent overseas for six-months to broaden their experience of the group.
"We are exporting people rather than bringing people in," he explains, while admitting: "We are not perfect and have a lot more to do in this area."
With its quirky product nomenclature – bookcases have male names or titles such as Billy or Kommendor (captain) while sofas take after Swedish places – a flick through its catalogue shows that, despite its newfound cultural sensitivity, at its core it remains Swedish and proud.
Hansson says it will stay that way: "There won't be a Birmingham or London wardrobe," he jokes. "Someone in Sweden designs the products."(guardian)