‘We love Ikea, but it doesn’t work for us’: how Jesper Brodin handles an unhappy customer

What happens when the bully gets distracted?

Ikea revolutionized retail from the 1950s, enticing shoppers to travel to out-of-town stores, navigate their labyrinthine format to collect furniture, transport it home, and assemble it themselves. But when Jesper Brodin took over as chief executive in 2017, it quickly became clear that his customers had had enough.

Brodin, who runs the Ingka Group, which operates Ikea stores, travels to Spain, UK, Sweden, US, Canada, Japan, China and Russia talking to customers. All gave him the same message: we love Ikea, but it just isn’t working for us. Their main complaint? Lack of convenient places to shop.

“On a Tuesday night, when I come home from work and we have fed the kids, they have done their homework, I need to buy two folding chairs, I am not going to the Ikea store. And if you can’t offer me a chance on my terms, I’ll unselect you,” Brodin said of customer feedback.

The soft-spoken Swede, who once worked as an assistant to legendary Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, said he presented “journey reports” of what customers were thinking, only to realize they had found the new strategy Ikea needed.

“We were furniture disruptors in the 1900s. Suddenly, we were distracted by a new technology and retail revolution. So it’s clear to me that it’s not our decision anymore. It is our customer’s decision.”

Brodin is leading change on several fronts: Ikea is investing heavily in its online business, trying to catch up with rivals such as Amazon and Alibaba which are attracting its large customer base; it tested smaller store concepts including in large city centers and shopping malls, which the company had long rejected; and it’s offering shoppers new services, from home delivery to paying someone to assemble furniture (via one of its biggest acquisitions, the odd job service TaskRabbit).

We met at one of the fruits of the transformation: a smaller shop in central Paris, close to the 19th-century church of La Madeleine. For a company whose shop used to be a huge warehouse next to a “potato field,” as its chief executive likes to say, it’s a big change.

Brodin says he finds it easier to make tough decisions because Ikea’s old business model is clearly not working.

“I probably won’t have the courage to start this journey unless there are signs that we are not progressing. You could tell the effectiveness of our investment in the older model is paying off less and less. We are losing parts, especially online.”

He also knew that change had to be fast: “The choice of an evolutionary approach, I myself can’t blindly believe it. I think it’s going to take too long, and we’re going to be clinging too much to some old truths. Of course, at that time, you felt a little lonely. And you wonder: how is this going to be good for all of us?”

Brodin’s task was complicated by the arrival of Kamprad, who founded Ikea as a 17-year-old in 1943 and gave it a unique culture, creating a complex corporate structure that was more difficult to penetrate than the company’s furniture-building instructions to not only minimize taxes but also prevent it from being listed or taken. over.

Kamprad in particular is distrustful of e-commerce. “There was a time in 2005 or 2008 when the fears weighed on him more heavily than the opportunities. The fear of cost and the distraction of what is optimal in our value chain made him take a very clear stance that we are not going down that path,” said Brodin.

When Brodin took over, Kamprad was weak – he died just months later – but also back in Sweden after decades of tax exile in Switzerland. Her return increases the pressure on Brodin, but the chief executive sees no other option but to break with the past and embrace e-commerce.

“Basically there is an awareness that we are not decision leaders. Something has changed in society,” he added.

A day in the life of Jesper Brodin

  • 6.00 Get up. I wish I did yoga but no.

  • 7.00 Have breakfast with the family if they are at home. Juices, black coffee and sandwiches. When my wife is around, I am reminded to take vitamin supplements.

  • 9.00–10.30 When I travel, I often start the day at an Ikea store, talking to managers and colleagues about what’s working and what’s not.

  • 12.00–13.00 Quick lunch, something simple like a salad or a sandwich – I love meatballs so if it’s at an Ikea store, I sometimes go for that.

  • 12.30–16.00 Meetings with colleagues about how we make things better. (Sometimes wish we had fewer encounters.)

  • 16.00–17.30 Emails, phone calls, and travel if I’ve ever been to one of our offices, before I end my work day.

  • 17.30–19.00 Sports, right now I’m into padel and playing with three close friends.

  • 7pm–10pm Dinner & family time, with my wife and our three teenagers. Playing the guitar. Read.

  • 22.00 Time for a break. I try to sleep 7-8 hours because the days are really packed and I travel a lot.

Dressed in Ikea’s corporate uniform of a casual shirt and jumper, Brodin acknowledged it took time to build momentum within the company for change. “As a leader, you have to be an inspiration on the front lines and get involved in the details, and you have to overcome impossible problems,” he said.

He cites two major difficulties in leading the transformation: “We had to accept that we would at least partially change our business model. And then, I would say, unknown rarity. I had some scary moments. But it’s also the idea that doing nothing doesn’t seem very appealing.”

The plan appears to be working, with online sales up from about 6 percent of the total to a quarter. A new, smaller store in a Stockholm shopping center has boosted annual visits in the Swedish capital – where Ikea has only two stores outside the city – from 6 million to 9 million.

While Kamprad doesn’t share a digital vision, much of the founding ethos lives on at Ikea, including accepting blame. Kamprad — who distilled the wisdom of his weaving in a little tome in 1976 entitled “Testament of Furniture Dealer” — used to interrupt planning meetings and ask managers to list their mistakes. Brodin has expanded on that, giving peak staff a “licence to go bananas” card to try to overcome the fear of making mistakes — meaning, in theory, that if they take a risk and don’t succeed, Brodin has to pre-forgive them. His staff is compiling the best error book. The aim is to encourage more entrepreneurship, a challenge at a company that has become so large (Ingka generated €42 billion in revenue in its last financial year).

Brodin did not spare himself, saying he made three mistakes at Madeleine’s shop in Paris. Initially Ikea decided to leave its labyrinthine layout in stores for a more free-flowing design, but customers complained. “I want to know I haven’t missed anything,” was their response. The maze is restored but with shortcuts marked. Logistics downtown is also an issue, and something Ikea has had to learn by trial and error. Eventually, Ikea rented store space because Brodin didn’t want to bet too much on its success, but he says the company has now gone from owning 20 percent of the store to nearly 80 percent.

Another misjudgment he made was focusing too much on the new, smaller stores rather than the larger stores that make up the bulk of the business. “We’ve fixed it,” he added. It helps that part of the solution to the digital problem comes from Ikea’s existing stores — instead of building new warehouses to fulfill online orders, Ikea uses its out-of-town stores, making them more efficient.

If Brodin had a mantra, it would be “love the past, create the future”. His plans for Ikea have come in what he calls two “three year sprints” so people don’t overthink the problem. The current Sprint is about a year away from ending and Brodin thinks the next one might focus on Ikea’s sustainability and supply chain. It hopes to be climate positive by 2030 — reducing more emissions than its supply chain emits — but Brodin says it wants to do more to protect nature as well as the climate.

He is evangelical about how sustainability should be for all price ranges, not just luxury products. He called it a “dangerous myth” that “if goods are affordable, they are of poor quality and bad for nature”.

As the interview ended, Brodin took me to Ikea’s latest innovation: “immersive” rooms where you can look into a kitchen or bedroom and instantly change the color or design to test how it would look at home. For Brodin, this is a sign of how Ikea’s transformation continues. “We are never finished. Next fall we will start again, renew ourselves, asking what big things will happen soon, and we can feel that the pace of transformation will continue,” he added.

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