Ikea Delivery Is a Total Nightmare—and a Great Business Strategy

Commentary about business and finance.
Aug. 22 2013 2:53 PM

The Magnificent Nightmare of the Billy Bookcase

Ikea is so good at so many things. Why is it so bad at delivery?

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Ikea, unlike so many other retailers, has little to fear from Amazon. Consumers are increasingly conditioned to assume that virtually any product—even heavy, unwieldy products—can land on their doorstep 24 hours or less after purchase. Just one case in point: the frighteningly fast and cheap deliveries of heavy bulk purchases available via the Amazon subsidiary wag.com. But Ikea is, at least for the time being, immune to these expectations. According to Harvard Business School professor Frances Frei, “Amazon can disrupt anything that doesn’t have to be assembled or curated”—in other words, anything that isn’t Ikea. But heavy flat-pack furniture deliveries are a conundrum even Jeff Bezos hasn’t yet solved, and the most dazzling page of Amazon can’t begin to compete with any given IKEA alcove. “Yesterday, you didn’t know you needed a new strainer,” Frei says, “but today you do, because of how it was curated in the Ikea kitchen. Amazon can’t do that.”

Making you wait might make you happy. The longer we waited for Billy, it seems, the more we pined for Billy, which heightened our satisfaction when Billy did finally arrive. “The advantage of making people wait is that it creates a sense of anticipatory excitement,” says Michael Norton, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School. Norton and Elizabeth Dunn’s recent book Happy Money makes the case that a pay-now-enjoy-later model of consumption leads to greater customer satisfaction than the enjoy-now-pay-later logic of, say, Amazon Prime.

Making you work might make you even happier. The 2011 article “‘The IKEA Effect’: When Labor Leads to Love”—written by Norton, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely—argues that successfully assembling an Ikea product can lead us to value the item more than if the item arrived on our doorstep camera-ready. I jokingly ask Norton if my husband’s unpaid internship as an Ikea fulfillment manager might have created its own Ikea effect. “I’m not so sure the answer is no,” Norton says. “It was a real pain in the butt, but we do misattribute effort to liking, so he might actually like the bookcase more because getting it was such a hassle. There’s something about service recovery that creates a different, more meaningful experience.”

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Or not. “Working as Ikea’s fulfillment and transport manager had no impact on my enjoyment of the shelves once they arrived,” my husband said in a statement to Slate.

Being icy and withholding is part of Ikea’s unique alchemy. “Ikea refuses to expose itself to the idiosyncracies of its customers,” Frei says. “There is no way they could do their own delivery with that signature Ikea crisp efficiency—there are too many variables. So they make you conform to them.” Ikea makes great stuff cheap—and that is the draw. Helping you obtain that stuff, or even find it in their store, is not part of their mission, which also explains why you’ll rarely spot an Ikea employee who isn’t either working a register or hauling purchases to the parking lot. “If you come to their showroom seeking out a specific thing and you can’t find it,” Frei says, “you’ll probably just go and buy an adjacent thing.” 

Without meaning to, I recently tested this last hypothesis at my local Ikea in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Shumsky had mentioned that he’d wanted to purchase a Spoka nightlight for his daughter, but Ikea doesn’t deliver this item and his nearest showroom is two and a half hours away. I’m only about five miles from mine, so after checking online that the Spoka was “most likely in stock” in Red Hook, I hopped on my bike to go buy one for him. But once I’d slowly wended through the endless floor displays to the lighting emporium, I couldn’t find the Spoka nightlight, or any nightlights at all, or anyone on the floor to help me find the nightlights, so I bought and ate an Ikea cinnamon bun and got back on my bike and rode home. I know that Ikea won’t lose any sleep over me and my failed nightlight quest (which cost them all of $15) or the Billy breakdown. But it’s still a little strange—a little analog, a little pre-Amazon and pre-Apple Store—to realize that a bad customer experience is part of the design of a good business strategy.