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Ikea debuts: The store that runs on a wrench (1987)

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The store that runs on a wrench

An invader from Scandinavia creates a build-it-yourself empire

At a cavernous store in the Washington suburb of Dale City, Va., thousands of shoppers lined up last week with box-laden carts at a battery of check-out counters. A supermarket perhaps? Or a Toys “R” Us store?

No, these bargain hunters were buying furniture. The boxes of all shapes and sizes contained build-it-yourself kits for assembling everything from chairs to cabinets. It may seem an odd way to furnish a house, but not to the throngs of customers who were grabbing, hauling and finally staggering out of the store.

The commotion was stirred by the annual sale taking place at the new American outlets of IKEA, the Scandinavian retailer of unassembled furniture and other household goods. While most Americans have never heard of IKEA, the chain had $1.7 billion in sales last year at 76 stores that stretch from Norway to Australia. Already one of the fastest-growing merchants in Europe, where 51 of its stores are located, IKEA is now successfully bringing its pizzazz and promotion to the US. The company put a store in suburban Philadelphia two years ago, and followed with the Dale City outlet in 1986. A third branch is scheduled to open in 1988 near Baltimore.

What sets IKEA apart is that much of its merchandise is sold apart. Buyers must assemble the kits at home, using sparsely worded drawings, a screwdriver and a little hexagonal allen wrench that IKEA supplies to install the special bolts in its furniture. IKEA gets promotional mileage even from the wrench: it appears everywhere in the store, talking in cartoon balloons and giving advice about such things as the store’s return policy and its delivery service. The allure of the unassembled products is that they sell for at least 30% less than finished furniture of comparable quality. Customers do not seem to mind putting their bargains together. In its first 15 months of business, the Dale City IKEA has assembled some $40 million in sales…

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