IKEA has become a bit of a holiday pastime where you can enjoy coffees and light bites at wallet-friendly prices, stroll around without being approached by sales, take as many snaps as you want, rest on a couch as long as you want, or simply, be inspired, all under the same roof. 

These perks, often taken for granted by spoiled shoppers, are actually the very key to the IKEA empire’s success. 

The Swedish homeware chain that sells a table for 60 bucks is now among Forbes’ Top 50 World’s Most Valuable Brands that is worth more than €44 billion. As of last year, IKEA owns a total of 373 stores across 47 countries.

IKEA has been on a roll since it was founded in 1943 with a manifesto to offer “people with limited means to furnish their houses like rich people”. 

It’s a principle so powerful it has successfully guided IKEA throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, thriving through the final years of World War II and the global financial crisis of 2007-08 when its rivals Habitat and Conforama could barely survive.

With this success, in 1975 the company forayed into Hong Kong and immediately edged out perennial rival Habitat. 

The arrival of IKEA has given Hong Kong people a modern, yet cost-conscious option for home furnishing. All the designs are centralised in Sweden, and bringing the products to this part of the world is a big job for the local management team.

Ben Ng, communication and interior design manager at IKEA Hong Kong, is one of the creative brains behind IKEA’s produce-packed aisles. 

Behind the scenes is the efforts of a team of 40 whose daily routine is to complete what it calls the “morning round” every day, meaning “tidying up” the basics and organising shelves according to colour, he says. 

“People like to take pictures here as if they’re at Disneyland. So our first daily task is to make sure our products go back to the right places before the stores open.”

But the public’s enduring love for IKEA has gone far beyond its products to its caring brand personality. A global survey by ad agency Havas found that consumers are likely to spend on brands that are meaningful and caring.

While most retailers are obsessed with bettering their in-store shopping experience, what has largely been underrated is what benefits brands can offer to customers before taking money from them. That means more than just one-off rewards programmes or coupons, but taking into consideration the wellbeing of their customers, along with eco-friendly products and a fun environment for shopping. 

“While traffic at many shopping malls continues to go down, we manage to maintain our footprint with a handful of free facilities to cater to all family members, such as a ball pit for children. This is not meant for profit, but to help forge happy experiences for visitors and encourage them to spend more time at our stores,” he says.

The IKEA Foundation is also a measure of its social mission. Among its many charity works, the annual Soft Toy for Education campaign is arguably the most prominent programme that has seen some US$102 million raised over the past 12 years in support of UNICEF.

“If you like a brand, you will naturally be eager to find out more about that brand.”

The evidence of a caring brand is pervasive throughout the IKEA retail space, but the company isn’t in your face about it. But IKEA’s caring attitude is derived by collecting data from real-life people. 

Twice a year, IKEA Hong Kong sends designers to visit people’s homes to gather customers’ real-life experiences for research in the pursuit of achieving its mission to “bring Sweden products to Hong Kong”. 

Insights generated from these regular visits are displayed via some 30 settings in each store to forge a more intimate bond with consumers. 

“Every setting tells a story,” says the designer.

“Inspired by home visits, both size and layout of each setting echoes with the homes around the area. For example, the portion of public housing settings at the Sha Tin and Kowloon bay branches is bigger, whereas the Causeway Bay branch features larger flats.”

Not only does visiting people’s homes help make better showrooms, it also helps with better marketing decisions. 

Beneath its staggering digital solutions such as the AR catalogue and the viral ad viewed by millions (“bookbook” parody), lies a simple, but powerful tag line – “It starts with food” – an insightful theme evolved from last year that speaks even more intimately to customers’ needs. 

“The importance of having a nice family meal is deep-rooted in Chinese culture, and the kitchen is very much the soul of a home. So we prolonged the theme around food in our catalogue this year highlighting kitchenware.”

One product that perhaps best demonstrates IKEA’s understanding of customers’ needs is the small and movable compact Sunnersta kitchen that is designed to fit Hong Kong’s dwellings. 

Another key item – the new Vallentuna sofa series – allows customers to personalise compartments for relaxation, sleeping and storage needs. 

“We pay attention to the details. For example, we make some of our mattresses 10cm smaller to fit into smaller spaces. This may not sound important, but when it comes to fitting a mattress perfectly to a bed frame, 10cm matters a great deal.”

While applicability has always been core in IKEA’s merchandise, the aesthetic aspect is also underscored in the new catalogue, as “there has been an increasing focus on aesthetics in the home, when now, people spend more time at home,” he notes.

Some of the artistic highlights include the Kallarp cabinet, Vardagen tableware and Kalvia kitchen doors, which feature abstract art pieces by fashion designer Martin Bergström.

Apart from flagging its design principle with sleek and functional minimalism, another reason Scandinavian home furnishing reigns in Asia is its persistence in simplicity and perfection. 

IKEA is one of the very few brands that has challenged the age-old low-price-means-cheap-quality customer mindset by demonstrating cost-effective doesn’t always equate to cheap.

“Our testing centres in Shanghai and Sweden are responsible for both mechanical and physical testing of the products over and over again in order to make sure they are sustainable and strong.”

Now the company has taken its lofty mission to be caring and inspiring a step further with the encyclopaedic IKEA Museum newly opened in June at Älmhult, where its first store used to be, exhibiting more than 20,000 pieces from IKEA’s archives. 

This unprecedented move in the retail world is a smart way to immortalise the brand and to etch the blue and yellow trademark in people’s minds with dramatic displays of the brand’s legacy. 

It is a revolutionary idea that took two and a half years and a big chunk of money to realise, but it has been worth the effort. 

Sometimes you have to give a little before you get a little back.