IKEA's gleam meets Russia's gloom

Opening: The Swedish store brings its signature blue-and-yellow cheer -- and its bargains -- to a Moscow suburb, attracting thousands.

March 23, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- It was such an ordinary moment -- just bringing in the mail -- but when Anya Pulyayeva turned to page 17 of the unfamiliar catalog in her hand and saw the cutest little lamp for only $5, the whole world suddenly lighted up.

At that moment, Anya understood: She was born to shop.

So, apparently, were thousands and thousands of other Russians who made their way to a distant suburb of Moscow yesterday for the opening of IKEA, a Swedish home-furnishing store.

On a wintry March day, they ranged over snowy fields on foot, they transferred from subway to bus, they drove in cars snarled in long traffic jams, and they sometimes abandoned those cars on the roadside in their eagerness to answer the siren call of $3.50 pine stools and $21 fiberboard bookcases. They came, determined to buy the lovely things that they had only just realized they so desperately needed.

"It's an extremely beautiful lamp," sighed Pulyayeva, 25, "and an unbelievably low price."

They came, and they stood, hundreds still waiting to get into the door by late afternoon, thousands lined up for two to three hours to reach the 21 cash registers.

Tatyana Burmistrova had traveled two hours by subway and bus to get to the store, arriving at 10 a.m. and planning to buy a tall compact disc stand for her son for only $10.

Hours later, she couldn't say how long she had been shopping.

"I've been lost in time and space," she said, looking forlornly at her shopping cart and wondering how she was going to manage the return journey. "I forgot I only have two hands."

She had been borne along on waves of intoxicated shoppers, hardly able to get close to many displays. Still, she had managed to find the CD stand, a folding wooden chair ("because I'm a grandmother and you always need another chair for a grandchild"), two rag rugs ("only $2 each!"), two very long silvery curtain rods, three bamboo shades, paper and crayons, a blue plastic storage tub and a large green and orange plastic spaghetti fork ("It's made in Spain!").

A treasured catalog

Burmistrova, who sells pottery at an outdoor market on the weekends, carried with her, like a talisman, a 1993 IKEA catalog written in German. She had plucked it from a newsstand in those first years of freedom when any foreign publication was still a guilty pleasuure and had thumbed through it regularly ever since, admiring the cheerful colors and tasteful styles.

"When I heard it was opening here," she said, "I had to come."

She couldn't help but hear. IKEA spent $2.5 million on advertising. The store put up 79 billboards and ran ads on television and in newspapers. And IKEA papered the city with 3.5 million catalogs, attractive though cheaper than the glossy ones found in Baltimore. Instead of once a year, IKEA will put them out four times a year in case the ruble falls and prices rise.

"But we didn't get on the Moscow metro," said Johannes Stenberg, IKEA's marketing manager, "and that's where our market is."

The overseers of subway advertising had declared that IKEA ads presented a clear threat to public morality.

Pictures of brightly colored furniture were accompanied by a slogan the authorities found offensive: "Every 10th European was made in our beds." They didn't like the photo of the IKEA catalog, either, with the sunny yellow sofa on the cover. "The most read book," the slogan said, "after the Bible."

IKEA's team arrived in Moscow to set up the store in the fall of 1997 and along the way ran into many of the bureaucratic twists and turns that make doing business in Russia such an adventure.

They remembered the words of their legendary founder, who presided over opening day ceremonies yesterday.

"There is no such thing as an impasse," said Ingvar Kampad, who started IKEA in Sweden in the 1950s, forming the name from his initials and those of the farm and town where he was born.

Kampad, 74, enraged his early competitors with his low prices and once had to roll himself into a carpet to sneak into a Swedish trade fair, Stenberg said.

Weight or value?

Russian bureaucrats have their methods, too. Midway in the project, customs authorities informed the IKEA managers that they would have to pay customs duties according to weight rather than value. A heavy bookcase, packed flat for cheap transportation, would cost more to import than IKEA wanted to sell it for.

"That delayed us six months," said Lennart Dahlgren, IKEA's manager in Russia. After intense lobbying, IKEA persuaded the government to revert to its original promises to charge duties on value instead of weight.

The disappearing overpass

Yesterday, at an opening day news conference, IKEA executives complained about the most recent bureaucratic reversal. After officials in the town of Khimki, where the store is situated, granted permission to build a highway overpass, Moscow city officials intervened to prevent construction.

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