Is IKEA a Listening Company?


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This article is not about listening or not, it’s about listening to the right things (“unique listening”) and in some cases, not listening. Because to blindly do what the customers asks may run counter to the right strategy for your company.

If you ask people what they think about the IKEA shopping experience—no matter where are they located—you hear a lot about three common pain points: “forced round tour,” “availability of staff for on-site support,” and “queuing time at check-out.”

Below are real comments from people who took a global survey we organized with CustomerThink and TOTE-M on the IKEA in-store experience.

Three Common “Pains” of the IKEA Shopping Experience

Common Pain No. 1—”Forced Round Tour”

“Forced use of round tour, difficulty of getting directly to desired area.”
“You can’t really go in for one specific item, you have to make your way around the entire store . . ..”
“Feeling like part of the herd grazing through the store.”
“The shop layout is designed to force you to maximize unnecessary browsing when you know what you want. You’re angry before you even get to where you want to be.”
“Even though IKEA has added short-cuts, it is still a navigation nightmare. I think twice about buying at IKEA knowing I cannot get in and out easily.”

Common Pain No. 2—”Availability of Staff for On-site Support”

“Can be a pain trying to ask the service staff for assistance.”
“Never enough sales help, I waited almost 45 minutes for help.”
“Always need service but can’t always get someone who is available to help.”
“Trying to locate our items in huge warehouse with confusing signage, very few people around to ask for assistance.”
“Staff are usually too occupied to answer questions . . . probably staff-customer ratio is small . . ..”

Common Pain No. 3—”Queuing Time at Check-out”

“Checkouts are an awful experience!”
“Way too crowded and line-ups are too long at check-out.”
“Very crowded and long check out queues, especially on Saturdays.”
“Check out lines are generally long compared to other stores.”
“Too complicated… long line-ups…. not enough staff. Feels like you have to carve out a lot of time to buy from IKEA so now we buy less big ticket items there and carry out only the smaller ones.”

How Do Customers Feel About the In-store Experience

Respondents were asked to rate the satisfaction level of each sub-process during the entire in-store experience at IKEA. The average satisfaction scores of each sub-process are linked and mapped to form the two emotion curves* for the respondents of Mainland China and the Netherlands in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Emotion Curve—IKEA In-store Experience: Mainland China Vs. the Netherlands

As you can see in Figure 1, Product Pricing (S15) is the most significant pleasure peak for the respondents from the Netherlands, but is the most significant pain peak for the respondents from Mainland China. On the other hand, despite their differences in market maturity level, taste and cultural background (we received the largest number of responses from Mainland China and the Netherlands), respondents considered Forced Round Tour (S9), Availability of Staff for On-site Support (S17), and Queuing Time at Check-out Counter (S25) as amongst the most significant pain peaks.

Should IKEA Change Brand Value?

Figure 2 illustrates the importance rankings of all attributes, derived by regression analysis with 1 being most important and 34 being least important. For simplicity’s sake, we only show the levels of importance for Forced Round Tour (S9), Product Pricing (S15), Availability of Staff for On-site Support (S17), and Queuing Time at Check-out Counter (S25).

Figure 2: Importance Rankings of Key Attributes— IKEA In-store Experience: Mainland China Vs. the Netherlands

Despite their position as the three common pains, Forced Round Tour (S9), Availability of Staff for On-site Support (S17), and Queuing Time at Check-out Counter (S25) are generally not important to Customer Satisfaction, Brand Differentiation, and Repeat Purchases to the respondents in Mainland China and the Netherlands. Product Pricing (S15)—the most significant pleasure peak to the respondents in the Netherlands—is important in reflecting IKEA’s differentiated brand value (ranked 2nd out of 34 sub-processes) and in driving repeat purchases (ranked 1st out of 34 sub-processes). Product Pricing (S15)—the most significant pain peak to the respondents in Mainland China—is unimportant to satisfaction, differentiation and repeat purchases.

Since “Low Price” is one of the core brand values of IKEA, a branded experience is delivered in the Netherlands but an un-branded experience is delivered in Mainland China. For the Mainland China market, should IKEA change brand value?

Which Region Delivers a Better Experience?

Figure 3 and Figure 4 display the emotion curves of the Netherlands and Mainland China using a different perspective: the effectiveness in delivering a branded experience. The blue stars denote the sub-processes/attributes that are important to customers and to the brand, the red dots are important to the customers only, the yellow dots are important to the brand only, while the grey dots are unimportant to both customers and to the brand.

Figure 3: Emotion Curve — IKEA In-store Experience: the Netherlands

Figure 4: Emotion Curve — IKEA In-store Experience: Mainland China

Referring to Figure 1, it seems that IKEA Mainland China is performing better than IKEA the Netherlands (ranked higher at 30 out of 34 sub-processes/attributes). By taking into consideration of the impact of each sub-process/attribute in driving satisfaction and differentiation as illustrated in Figure 3 and 4, which region delivers a ‘better’ experience?

Why Not Abandon the Forced Round Tour?

Figure 5 shows the distribution of sub-processes/attributes with respect to the importance level in delivering a branded experience and the performance level represented by experience ratings to the respondents in the Netherlands. Resources could be reallocated from the blue zone (sub-processes with low levels of importance and high levels of performance) to the red zone (sub-processes with high levels of importance and low levels of performance). The target Emotion Curve for IKEA in the Netherlands shown in Figure 6 (the blue curve) is derived from the movements of sub-processes recommended in Figure 5. In Figure 6, the red area represents the extra resources to be spent and the blue area the resources to be saved in delivering a target branded experience at IKEA in the Netherlands.

Figure 5: Importance-Performance Quadrant — IKEA In-store Experience: The Netherlands

Figure 6: Target Vs. Current Emotion Curve — IKEA In-store Experience: The Netherlands

Can Great Service Drive Consumer Purchases?

Similarly, Figure 7 shows the distribution of sub-processes with respect to their importance level and performance level to the respondents in Mainland China. In Figure 8, the red area represents the extra resources to be spent and the blue area the resources to be saved in delivering a target branded experience at IKEA in Mainland China. Through resource optimization among the in-store sub-processes, IKEA Netherlands and IKEA Mainland China can deliver a branded experience with the current level of resources. Since the Forced Round Tour is unimportant to satisfaction and repeat purchases, it doesn’t justify its continual existence. Why not abandon the ‘Forced’ Round Tour? Also, besides optimizing attributes in delivering a branded IKEA experience, can great service drive consumer purchases?

Figure 7: Importance-Performance Quadrant — IKEA In-store Experience: Mainland China

Figure 8: Target Vs. Current Emotion Curve — IKEA In-store Experience: Mainland China

Is IKEA a Listening Company?

The three common pains —“forced round tour,” “availability of staff for on-site support,” and “queuing time at check-out” — expressed by VOC (voice of the customers) are also the pain peaks reflected in the emotion curve in Figure 1. This phenomenon seems to have persisted for a long time without much improvement. Is IKEA a listening company?

Should IKEA Change Brand Value?

“We shall offer a wide range of home furnishing items of good design and function at prices so low that the majority of people can afford to buy them,” said Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA. IKEA is more than a listening company. “Product” and “Price” are core brand values, not “Service.” IKEA chose target segments and focused on satisfying critical needs, not all needs. However, even a strong brand like IKEA can deliver an un-branded experience in some regions (as with price as the pain peak in Mainland China, see Figure 1.) This may damage the brand equity severely. We have a question for the CMOs at corporate headquarters—do you know to what extent your different geographical regions and business units are delivering a consistent and branded experience to your target customers?

Which Region Delivers a “Better” Experience?

Perhaps the Chinese are more easy-going than the Dutch in giving ratings in satisfaction surveys; we are not sure. However, due to cultural and geographical variations, it is inappropriate and not meaningful to compare simply the absolute satisfaction ratings of different regions. IKEA is beyond a listening company. IKEA focuses on and excels in select attributes that are both important to the brand and to customers (see Figures 3 and 4). And, whether at IKEA Netherlands (see Figures 5 and 6) or IKEA Mainland China (see Figures 7 and 8), there is room to improve the use of existing resources. When you invest in satisfaction or experience initiative, think twice — how does it generate quantifiable insights to guide the design of a branded experience and optimize resources.

Why Not Abandon the Forced Round Tour?

When something has proven successful, you can easily come up with a dozen reasons why it was a good idea in the first place. The Forced Round Tour might be a disaster in any other company, but not IKEA. IKEA is a different listening company. Based on the analysis of the IKEA on-site research (which is not covered in this report), Forced Round Tour is derived as the 3rd most important attribute (out of 34) in affecting the quantity of in-store purchases (negatively correlated). Translation: customers buy more with the ‘forced round tour’ than without it, despite the fact that it may be an unpleasant experience. This is a compelling reason why companies should be concerned about the design and delivery of an experience. They just need a systematic approach to monitor results and justify changes.

Can Great Service Drive Consumer Purchases?

It’s hard to answer in a negative manner or say “No” to that question, especially in retail and service industries. IKEA is a unique listening company. Based on the analysis of the IKEA on-site research (not covered in this report), the most important attribute (ranked 1st out of 34) in affecting the quantity of in-store purchases is “queuing time at check-out” (negatively correlated). Translation: customers buy more with a longer queuing time at check-out and buy less with a shorter one. (It doesn’t make sense? Right? We’ll issue a separate publication to elaborate the controversial insights derived from the IKEA on-site research.) However, “service and the related attributes” do drive customers to give up in-store purchases (ranked 7th, 8th and 9th out of 34 attributes) when they are performed below acceptable levels. CFOs should distinguish these objectives when approving budgets on enhancing service levels: e.g. whether to drive sales or to avoid ‘churn’ as each requires different levels of investment and ROI justification.

There is only one IKEA. But your company could also listen to customers effectively through quantifying the effectiveness of experience by different objectives (driving satisfaction, brand differentiation, instant or repeat purchases), to different functions (Service, Sales, and Marketing), and in different geographical regions; and convert those valuable insights in designing your own branded experience and optimizing resources.

The global IKEA in-store experience research was co-organized by G-CEM, CustomerThink, and TOTE-M. It took the form of both online and on-site surveys. The surveys began on December 22, 2008 and ended on February 2, 2009. A total of 3,484 valid responses from 43 countries were collected. The guiding principles and the tools for design, execution and analysis of this research are based on the U.S. patent-pending CEM (Customer Experience Management) methodologies invented by G-CEM.

*Emotion Curve is invented and first put into applications by Mr. Sampson Lee, president of Global CEM, in 2006. It is one of the experience assessment and management tools of the U.S. patent-pending Branded Customer Experience Management Method registered by Global CEM. Emotion Curve maps the customer emotions generated at each touch-point or sub-process, and links them to form a curve in reflecting the perceived experience across the entire customer lifecycle (covers all touch-points at stages of pre-purchase, at-purchase, and post-purchase), or at a specific touch-point (e.g. retail, call center, website, etc.). Unlike the conventional approaches focus on enhancing efficiency and are process-centric; emotion curve represents the genuine customer feeling by addressing emotions and five senses, in a natural time sequence from an experience perspective. It is a truly [customer-centric] experience assessment and management method. The statistic data of emotion curve is derived through substantial X-VOC surveys, from the experience ratings on each touch-point or sub-process, evaluated by different target customer segments. The definition and selection criteria of touch-points and sub-processes are based on vigorous and scientific research, method, and sequential steps. An Emotion Curve shows how customers perceive experience. It is an innovative and powerful tool for creating a branded customer experience strategy. Furthermore, through a simple curve, from CEO to receptionist, no matter in boardroom or post room, all people in a company could easily understand and communicate the customer experience levels, by using a common graphical language.


  1. Sampson, I loved your article about “Is IKEA Listening.” Maybe they are but that does not mean they are doing anything if what they hear is negative?

    There stores are designed as a system and most are very much alike . . a case, maybe, of the theory won over reality. So, if they were to change to eliminate the negatives (taken from a Johnny Mercer lyrics) would the cure make things worse than the cause? If that is so, then the original concept was wrong from the start. Having lived with both store and trade show booth layout designs, my experience was that the person(s) who made or OK’d the layouts never had to face a layout that made it difficult to find what one was looking form

    For the fun of it, I copied to your article to word processing and replaced IKEA with several other retailers and, even a trade show and other than the names, your articles reads as if it is they who you were writing about.

    It gets down to more than listening. There is a format, call Business Calsithenics (see articles on my web site),for taking the negatives what one as heard or experienced and plan to make the changes that will make customers’ shopping experience more pleasurable . . . without having to cut the price or pretend that the price has been reduced. Buying sales (which one does when they cut a price) does not overcome poor service. In fact, great (in customers’ eyes) customer service may mean that price don’t have to be cut or could be raised.

    A few years ago, during a lunch break from a workshop I was giving,I gave the attendees a list of some stores in the area. They were to visit only stores they had never been to before. Their lunchtime assignment was to come back with a list of things that they found less than satisfactory and a second list of what happened that they could adapt into their businesses. As you can assume, the former list was 3 to 4 times longer than the latter list. After lunch, the rest of the workshop was going through both the negative and positive points and discuss what they would need to do so as not to repeat the negatives in their businesses and if postive, how could that idea be adapted into their busineesses. For many, it was an eye opener. I’ve also done the same thing using web sites my audiences had not visited. Same results and challenges

    So, it is not listening that is important for management to do, it is for them to do something that can change the customer experiences.

    Thanks for writing your article. I will have some of my clients when the topic about how store layouts, customer service, etc.


    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador of Selling
    Attitudes for Selling offers consulting, workshops and speaking on all business topics that affect sales. He can be reached at [email protected] or via

  2. Dear Alan,

    I am glad to know that you loved my IKEA article. I also believe that your comments echo with most IKEA customers. Here is an example saying that Why won’t IKEA listen to service complaints rather than telling customers to bug off?:

    “When I received really bad service from IKEA (it took over two months to get 2 cabinets delivered and the delivery was a complete mess…), IKEA responded by saying the only way I could complain or be heard was to write a letter to them. Has anyone else had this sort of brush off experience? How can we help them improve? The experience has really put me off IKEA.”

    Isn’t it obvious that IKEA should ‘LISTEN’ to customers and improve her service?

    Sampson Lee
    The Effective Experience

  3. Hi Sampson

    An interesting, if rather long article.

    My local IKEA is just five minutes drive away. It is always jam-packed full with customers. And everyone seems to be buying a complete kitchen refit if their stuffed-full cars are anything to go by. My local IKEA used to be the only one serving Cologne, a city of 1 million people. So IKEA has just opened another one on the other side of the city. But my local IKEA is just as busy.

    Not far away is an even bigger furniture store. I have been there a couple of times for unusual items. It is always empty, despite continuous advertising on TV, the radio and in the press. Everything has to be ordered. Nobody drives away with anything. It can take up to six weeks to get delivered. And the quality is no better than at IKEA a lot of the time.

    The success of IKEA illustrates two points:

    Firstly, despite IKEA’s obvious issues with the tour (removed at my local IKEA because they have signposted shortcuts), the lack of staff and the long wait at the checkout (also removed because you can self check-out), it is still a lot better than shopping at all the alternative furniture stores. As we know, value is relative, not absolute. If you are the best shopping experience in town, you will win big time, despite not being a perfect shopping experience. You don’t always have to listen to customers.

    And finally, the customer experience doesn’t just revolve around the shopping experience. It also includes all the activities prior to getting to the store and all the activities once you have left the store. The key is to first understand customers needs in terms of the jobs they are trying to do and the outcomes they desire from doing them, then to look at the complete end-to-end customer experience based upon these needs. The shopping experience alone does not cover all the customers’ needs. And the emotion curve is neither grounded in customers’ core needs, nor covers the end-to-end customer experience.

    IKEA is so successful because it understands customers’ needs over the end-to-end customer experience and because it has purposefully built a better experience than its competitors. Listening actively to customers is perhaps a luxury that IKEA can afford not to do at the moment.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-driven Innovator
    Follow me on Twitter

    Interested in Customer Driven Innovation? Join the Customer Driven Innovation groups on LinkedIn or Facebook to learn more.


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