Surviving IKEA’s Check-Out Catastrophe


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I only live 5 minutes away from my nearest IKEA. That has a whole host of advantages, (you can pop round for one of their excellent fresh salmon breakfasts on Saturday morning before the crowds arrive). But it also has disadvantages too, (you can all too easily pop round to get smaller items mid-afternoon, at peak shopping times). I made the latter mistake last Saturday. And what a catastrophic experience it was.

I actually popped round to get a couple of bulbs for a new light I had bought. Why on Earth they don’t include bulbs in lights is a mystery to me. Maybe they haven’t read any of Tony Ulwick’s work on the jobs customers are trying to do. Anyway, it was a last minute trip that couldn’t wait until Monday. Although IKEA was packed when I arrived, I managed to find space in the Restaurant for a coffee & cake, before making my way through the store to the lighting department. IKEA has recently changed its retail displays to showcase realistic looking themed “showrooms” that match the life themes that real customers have. The showrooms even have books, clothes and other personal effects to help make them seem more real. Sitting down in one kitchen showroom, I could almost believe I was at someone else’s house waiting for them to brew a fresh coffee. So far so good.

I picked up the two bulbs I needed and made my way to the checkout. What greeted me was like a scene out of Heathrow airport in the middle of a baggage handler’s strike! A sea of very unhappy people with nowhere to go and no way of knowing how long they would have to wait to checkout. Although there were 30 checkouts, only half of them were occupied, and half of the checkouts that were occupied were only taking debit cards(and this in Germany where “cash is king”). I joined the shortest queue with my two bulbs and counted the number of people in the queues nearest to mine. Each queue had about 30 people in it, snaking back up to 50 metres from the checkout into the warehouse area. Some other queues in the distance were even longer. That means at least 15 * 30 = 450 people were waiting to checkout, probably more. And all around us were lonely trolleys piled high with goods that other customers had abandoned. To cap it all, there were half a dozen staff to one side who were engaged in some internal discussion, rather than manning another six checkouts. They didn’t seem to notice the unhappy customers surrounding them. Nor to care about their plight.

I managed to escape this shopping purgatory with my two bulbs in only 30 minutes. Some were not so lucky.

Sampson Lee has discussed the IKEA experience at length in his post on We Need More Pain. In this case, I don’t think the offer of a cheap icecream, even of a whole van load of icecream, would have compensated for my checkout catastrophe. I had had more than enough pain for one day.

What did I learn from my visit to IKEA? First, that I should only go there at the start of the day when the store is not so busy. Second, that whilst IKEA has done a great job with its themed show rooms, that counts for nothing when you can’t buy the damned stuff without queueing for ages. Finally, that IKEA doesn’t really understand the end-to-end shopping experience of its customers. Either that or it figures that customers who have invested so much time in driving there, browsing and shopping will just grin and bear it through the checkout catastrophe.

What do you think? Is your IKEA a checkout catastrophe too? Or does your IKEA provide customer-centric service when things get really busy?

Post a comment and get the conversation going.

Graham Hill
Independent CRM Consultant
Interim CRM Manager

Graham Hill (Dr G)
Business Troubleshooter | Questioning | Thoughtful | Industrious | Opinions my own | Connect with me on LinkedIn


  1. Graham,

    In companies like this it seems that senior management decides to take what they think is a customer-focused approach in one aspect of the customer experience and fails to map the customer scenario throughout their experience.

    It is hard to blame employees for failing to show initiative when they are managed as like one more item in inventory. A few years ago, Safeway stores started a system to open another cashier when the longest line exceeded three. Who managed this system? The other cashiers. The got on the PA System and called for help. At first I thought the loved the power, but really they loved the responsibility. Now all the major supermarket have a similar practice.

    Unless employees become a central part of acting in the customer’s interest, customer-centricity will be a static concept.

    John I. Todor, Ph.D., author of Addicted Customers: How to Get Them Hooked on Your Company.

  2. Hi Graham — I can feel your pain “way over here” ! I’m sure you’ll hear from more IKEA customers as you requested but I’ve long since given up on shopping at that store. If you didn’t live so close to it, you would too. Why drive farther for more pain?

    As I read your description, I was hoping there would be a happy ending even though your title referred to a checkout catastrophe. As the optimist that I am, I was hoping that the six employees would have stepped up to diffuse the situation. Heck, since they weren’t qualified to run a register (have to assume that being the optimist) they could have circulated through the crowd to offer coffee, decorating tips, jokes, whatever.

    But instead they bought into the tunnel vision of doing their job and only their job. They could use some tips from the Southwest Airlines flight crew. At the very least, don’t stand there in plain site! The store manager missed an opportunity to turn the situation around for many customers. Customer experience management is not rocket science but some organizations make it seem so.

    Do you have a Target nearby?

    Jodie Monger, Ph.D.

  3. John, Jodie

    Thanks for your comments. They are much appreciated.

    I think the lack of customer-centric staff is perhaps a symptom of a different labour-relations problem at IKEA. The other weekend as I drove past IKEA, there were banners outside saying that it was being picketed by members of the Verdi service workers union (although the constant stream of cars entering the car park took absolutely no notice). And I have noticed other IKEA staff wearing Verdi badges on previous visits.

    Paradoxically, it may be the union agitation for better working conditions (I assume), that has actually resulted in the reduction in customer-centricity, as staff are forced to work within set parameters and are actively discouraged from showing their own initiative and going the extra mile for customers.

    Whatever the real reason. I just hope IKEA get the problem fixed. It is too much to expect me to go there just for coffee & cakes, no matter how good they are.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant
    Interim CRM Manager

  4. I have been in IKEA 3 or 4 times and most of those times, i have abandoned the 2-3 items I had intended to buy because the checkout line was long and this was NOT on the weekend but in the middle of the day. The fun of going to IKEA is dead – won’t go there again because the help is non-existant and almost all the checkout stations are self-serve (which means a very slow line – their machines are hideously non-intuitive even for the tech savvy).
    So, I give up. Neat place, but not worth wasting my life there.

  5. I have given up going to IKEA unless I need something I absolutely can’t find anywhere else. It always seems there is an inadequate amount of manned registers which I don’t understand at all.

  6. I had to wait 40 minutes to return a set of curtains- that’s absurd! IKEA is not convenient for me, but I decided to shop for some decor items for my son’s dorm room. He changed his mind on the curtains we purchased, so I had to return them.
    When I approached the returns desk, I noticed it was very crowded and disorganized. I tried to find the end of the line and it turned out there wasn’t one! Apparently, you have to take a number and wait till it’s called (like the DMV). When I got my ticket, it said my estimated my wait time to be 40 minutes. What a time suck! IKEA, you can and should do better.
    I have no desire to shop there again. There are a lot of other great places to shop for home decor for low prices. No need to waste your time at places that don’t appreciate your business like IKEA.


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