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August Lunch Recap - Monica Varela - IKEA

15 Sep 2014 12:02 PM | TB OWIT (Administrator)

"Taking a Major Retailer on the International Path Undefined - An IKEA Retrospective
from Sweden, to the U.S. and Beyond"


By a show of hands - Who’s heard of IKEA before?  Who’s been to the store in Tampa?  It’s surprising to learn that 38% of the population in Tampa doesn’t know what IKEA is or that there is a IKEA store in Tampa.  This is one challenge that IKEA faces according to our latest TBOWIT luncheon speaker, Monica Varela, Manager of the Tampa store.  If you missed Monica’s presentation this past Thursday, August 28th, you missed a fascinating talk about mixing cultures and IKEA’s entrance to the US market.

Monica has worked for IKEA since 1989 and her enthusiasm for her company was contagious and her knowledge was extensive.  Monica is an IKEA expert having worked at the US corporate headquarters in charge of various product “ranges”, worked abroad as manager of European ranges/stores/regions, and now as  manager of the Tampa store. This lady knows her stuff – IKEA stuff! The overarching theme of Monica’s presentation was – how do you mix cultures and modify products for a particular market without turning your back on corporate culture. How do you go about planting IKEA’s Swedish culture and values of functionality, sustainability, equality, and stewardship into the US market? How do you overcome the challenges that will inevitably come up?

The answer is two-prong – educate your market and educate the home office in Sweden to where they modify the “range” (product line).  Here are a few examples of challenges faced-

Bedding - IKEA was the first to introduce the concept of a duvet cover. IKEA US had to educate their public on the use and practicality of a duvet cover. On the flip side, IKEA US had to help Sweden realize that Americans want flat sheets (Swedish people don’t sleep with flat sheets). IKEA now sells flat sheets.

Lighting – Sweden doesn’t get as much light as we do here in the US. It’s actually quite dark. The Swedish people use “points of light” in the rooms of their home. They will have a specific light for a specific purpose usually at a lower wattage. The Swedish will turn off and on lights as they move around a room. Conversely, in the US, we typically use a higher wattage bulb for the whole room.  For the US market, IKEA had to come up with a higher wattage bulb. As info, by 2016, all of IKEA’s lights globally will be LED.

Candles – For the Swede, candles are functional. Not so in the US, we use candles for decoration and for their scent. There was a long battle to get the go-ahead to sell scented candles in the US. Today, they are the number one seller around the world!

Glassware – No, that’s not a pitcher for water. That’s the size of the glass that Americans want to use. In Sweden, they do not use ice so their glasses are taller and narrower.  IKEA US was given the go ahead to move glass production to the US and we now have our “normal” size glasses.

Kids Dept – IKEA tries to sell products and to show their customers that kids are not to be isolated or protected in the home. Kids should have a central place in every room of the house. For instance, IKEA sells a porcelain tea service. They want kids to learn that if you drop something it’ll break and you might get a cut. One thing that IKEA has not been allowed to sell in the US though that they sell in Europe – a tool kit with a real hammer and saw (!).


While there have been some challenges when it comes to the range, IKEA (which in Sweden is pronounced ee-kay-a) has had great success with planting their Swedish corporate culture in not only the US stores, but IKEA stores globally. Here are a few of IKEA’s ethos.

Diversity – At IKEA stores, diversity is invited, welcomed, and accepted. It doesn’t matter if you have pink hair, tattoos, or piercings for instance. IKEA co-workers don’t have to hide who they are. Co-workers are supported in their individual expression and uniqueness.

Equality – At IKEA, there is no sense of strict hierarchy. There are no offices or cubicles. Monica’s desk is a room with several other desks. Everyone wears the same uniform. Everyone goes by their first name. Monica told a humorous story that happened recently when a new hire thought that Monica was a pusher-of-carts because that is where she had first seen her.

Energy – The best ideas come from the bottom up across all lines. September starts the IKEA business year. To come up with the next year business plan, IKEA Tampa took 14 of their employees from across the spectrum thru a SWOT analysis and this group comes up with the business plan. This group of employees not only comes up with the plan, but then presents the plan to the IKEA board. Monica is proud to say that this year’s plan was deemed “the best ever!”.

Work/life balance – Apparently Europeans have the following to say about us in the U.S., “Europeans work to live and Americans live to work.” At IKEA all managers are expected to work around 40 hours per week not 50/60/70 per week. If someone is working these many hours than there is something wrong. IKEA will work with a person to  make sure that their job can be completed in around  40 hours.


Monica’s presentation was chock full of interesting tidbits, stories, and strategies to entwine two cultures. Monica also delved into current opportunities that IKEA faces such as e-commerce and evolving self-serve for customers who want to be served more (ex. picking and assembly).  After Monica’s presentation, she fielded many questions from the audience and we could have peppered her for about another hour. I’m so glad that she answered so many questions, because through the answers we learned the origins of IKEA’s heart/hug plush, IKEA’s expansion plans both in the US and globally, a few stories of culture clashes between Sweden and other countries, how IKEA cares for their suppliers and invests in their suppliers, local in-store events, and local philanthropy.

Best of all, Monica ended her presentation with a raffle for about a dozen IKEA items – everything from lights to duvet covers to office storage to, of course, a heart/hug plush pillow & more!


If you missed Monica’s presentation, you missed an energetic, highly informative, excellent talk about IKEA. But don’t worry, you can always visit the store!



by - Christyna Doege

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