Does IKEA enable mobility?

In “How Ikea took over the world” Beth Kowitt writes:

In the furniture world there’s an oft-cited statistic that we have our sofas longer than our cars and change our dining room tables as frequently as our spouses. Furniture can be its own kind of ball and chain. It’s passed down from generation to generation, or it’s so expensive that people feel it’s forever. From the get-go, Ikea shook up that paradigm. “It traumatized furniture retailing,” says Martin Toogood, who has run several companies that have competed against Ikea over two decades.

Ikea kept its prices down with an obsessive focus on costs. It might skip an extra coating of lacquer on the underside of a table that people never see or use. The company has also stripped out as much labor as possible from the system, pushing tasks that were once done by traditional retailers onto the customer. Flat packed furniture made it easier for customers to take purchases with them, cutting out the expense of stocking and delivery. (Ikea figured out flat packing in 1956, when a designer took the legs off a Lövet table to get it in his trunk.)

I’ve read that IKEA might enable greater mobility by making moving cheaper. Rather than buying a bunch of expensive furniture and then spending thousands of dollars to haul it, IKEA allows people to quickly, and with low search costs, buy functional stuff when they move—and sell or throw away what they don’t use. I’ve been the beneficiary of lightly used stuff: Kowitt says that “One Billy bookcase, an Ikea classic, is sold every 10 seconds,” and the couple of them in my apartment came from Craigslist, either free or for $10.

A modern person looking for a job might find it easier to pack a laptop, a Kindle, a (few) paper books, some pots and pans, and clothes into a couple boxes, ship them, and re-buy everything else on the other side. Being able to focus more experiences, and spending on experiences, might be enabled by IKEA. And with more and more other stuff available cheaply online—Tuft & Needle beds are my favorite pet example, but Campaign Living also makes interesting and movable furniture—a lot of people can be substantially more mobile. Craigslist may be a substitute for U-Haul.

Furniture isn’t “forever” anymore, and I’ve met “minimum furniture” people who seem very happy with not much stuff: usually they want a desk of some sort, a bed, and maybe a small table and chairs. They rarely have friends over, or if those friends do come over it’s to pre-game, and the apartment is mostly for the big “S”es: sleeping, showering, or sex. Why bother with more?

EDIT: In “A Dozen Things I’ve Learned from Chris Dixon About Venture Capital and Startups” Tren Griffin writes:

McKinsey placed little or no value on what Craig McCaw called the ability of people to be “nomadic.” The mobile phone had each of the attributes Chris Dixon noted above. Some people thought of the mobile phone as a toy. Since my first mobile phone cost more than $4,000 dollars I actually felt awkward using it in some social settings. Talking into a mobile phone in some pubic settings would cause people to frown at you.

To continue my example, Craig McCaw was also an enthusiastic personal user of what we then called “cellular” phones. Craig McCaw loved working out of the ‘mobile office’ – meaning cars, planes, boats and ships. Which meant he was a natural enthusiast for the product. When the time came to sell his cable TV business in order to double down on the mobile phone business, the choice was made easy by his love of the mobile phone.

Mobility seems like a long-term secular trend. Cheryl Strayed glamorizes it in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Her writing is as excellent as her life choices are dubious yet revealing of modern character. Bet against a wandering lifestyle at your own peril, and invest in it when you can.

EDIT 2: Older books show evidence of a pre-IKEA world. In Mary Gaitskill’s novel Veronica, Alison moves from New York to L.A. and when she gets there:

John took me to flea markets to shop for furniture: a polka-dot rug, an orange sectional couch, a red Formica table with matching chairs. He took me to lunch and sometimes to dinner.

That rug, couch, and table are probably ugly, not very functional, and take a lot of time to search for and acquire. One trip to IKEA can replace a lot of time in “flea markets,” leaving flea markets for those who really, really like them. This may say more about my cultural milieu and friend set than about culture, but I’ve never heard anyone around me talk about going to flea markets. Pretty much every move any of my friends has ever done has entail a trip to IKEA.

2 responses

  1. Pingback: The single-speed State Bicycle review, and a philosophical meditation « The Story's Story

  2. Pingback: Links: What’s up with Russia?, Nastygal.com’s saga, Ikea, Linux laptops, Les Mis, and more! « The Story's Story

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