IMHO: The IKEA “Experience”

We spent some time this past weekend getting my eldest daughter squared away in her new apartment.   

It’s her first, and as with nearly all first apartments, there is a lot you need to get that you never needed in your room at home or in your dorm away at college.  So we headed out to IKEA.

Those who have never had occasion to visit an IKEA store should check it out at least once.  They are mammoth stores—big on the outside and seemingly even more massive on the inside.  It’s the kind of store you can easily get lost in (not to worry, they have their own food court inside), and yet it’s very hard to simply get from point A to point B, even if you know what you want to buy.  About the only way to get through the store is to wander along the winding path the IKEA folks have constructed that takes you—literally—through every display imaginable.1   

But the really interesting thing about the IKEA shopping process is that you not only have to find what you want, you must write down the part number(s), and—at the end of your journey through this mammoth store—you must assemble the requisite pieces/boxes in the warehouse.2 You not only have to make sure that you have each of your purchases, you frequently have to make sure that you have all the (separate) boxes into which your purchase has been divided.  Ironically, the consummation of that IKEA shopping experience is that you get to go home and put your purchases together.

Now, I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like the IKEA “experience.”  Oh, some might not care for the quality of the furniture, or the selection—and surely I’m not the only one who wonders why I have to do all the work (I understand that it’s supposed to be cheaper, but I haven’t found it to be cheap).  But it’s not for those in a hurry, and at the end of the night, I kept feeling like I should be able to present someone else with the bill!

As I was loading up the family van with our purchases, I wondered if this is how participants feel about the current structure of our voluntary savings system: one (still) fraught with a mind-numbing array of choices that have to be assembled at the point of enrollment by participants who want to do the right thing(s), but who find themselves stuck trying to follow an instruction manual they don’t quite understand, surrounded by people who seem to get it (but probably don’t, either), only to find themselves at the checkout counter wondering if they do, in fact, have everything they need—only to then have to go home and put it together themselves.

And I wonder if, when they tally up that bill, they too will observe that it’s probably supposed to be cheaper that way—but find that it’s not exactly cheap.


 1 This turns out to be an interesting way to create the kind of “impulse” purchasing that most retail stores only have positioned at the checkout counter, as one continually wanders past interesting things that you hadn’t even thought you needed.  On the other hand, the maps posted along the way that purport to show you where you are were not exactly reassuring to those in a hurry.

 2 A place reminiscent of that last scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (albeit with numbered shelves and aisles).