Holli Rathman was in her element strolling through Ikea's gigantic new store in College Park, browsing dozens of living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms - even partial model homes.
In a store bigger than three Wal-Marts combined, the 30-year-old graphic designer and mother of two had at her fingertips all of the 80,000 items the Swedish home furnishings retailer makes. She had already bought the Allerum sofa bed.
"This is awesome; there's lots of selection," said Rathman, a New Market resident who has furnished her entire house from Ikea because of "the design of the furniture, the contemporary looks and colors, and the price range."
The international furniture powerhouse had devotees such as Rathman in mind when it embarked on its latest strategy to expand more heavily in the United States, a plan that calls for clustering stores in key, proven markets.
The College Park store makes the Baltimore-Washington region one of four in North America with three or more Ikeas, joining Los Angeles, New York and Toronto. In this area, Ikea also has stores in White Marsh and in Woodbridge, Va.
At 371,000 square feet, the scale of Ikea's 16th U.S. store is mind-boggling. Occupying 30 acres on Route 1, it has 55 room displays, five model home displays depicting real life situations, a supervised play area that replicates a Swedish farmhouse and forest, a 420-seat cafeteria and 1,680 parking spaces. By the time it opened its door Wednesday morning, some 2,000 shoppers were waiting.
"We're getting better known, and have more brand recognition," said Paget Ingham, the store's manager. "It's a style that isn't everywhere else."
Ikea's "cluster" strategy represents a new direction for a chain that started out opening no more than one store in any given trade area. Ikea expected - and got - customers to drive an hour or more for its mostly contemporary furnishings that promised to be functional and stylish. Many fit into a box that could be carted away in a trunk or tied to a car roof.
Now, as its affordable brand and family-oriented stores have gained popularity in a stalled economy, Ikea says it is looking to garner economies of scale, encourage more frequent visits from customers traveling shorter distances and ease congestion at existing stores. That, in turn, should convince shoppers at older stores to shop more often and stay longer, the company says.
"Our primary focus of expansion is to build up our presence in existing markets," said Joseph Roth, a spokesman for Ikea in Los Angeles. "Based on the success of the stores in White Marsh and Woodbridge, now we have a huge customer base in the middle that would visit Ikea more frequently if it were closer to them. ... Customers coming from Montgomery County and Prince George's County might not go to Woodbridge anymore. But we anticipate that will be countered by visitors within the proximity of Woodbridge or of White Marsh who will go there more frequently."
Expanding in U.S.
The private chain, which has expanded gradually since first coming to the United States in 1985, plans five new U.S. stores a year over the next decade, part of a global expansion aiming for at least 15 to 25 stores a year.
Last year, 286 million people visited 180 Ikea stores in Europe, Australia, China, Canada and the United States. Sales were $10.8 billion, with $1.86 billion of that in North America.
Americans spent $95 billion at furniture and home furnishings stores last year, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
The latest strategy makes sense for a retailer that has prospered at a time when home furnishings stores are struggling through a "brutal" climate, said Cristopher Gunter, president of the Retail Group in Seattle.
Gunter said Ikea has found a winning formula, a big part of which is the shopping experience itself.
By propelling shoppers around a "racetrack" style showroom, where living rooms blend into kitchens, which make way for work areas and bedrooms, baths and children's furniture, Ikea is able to control the shopping experience, showcasing new products and new decorating ideas, he said.
"Ikea makes shopping fun and it makes it instant ... where someone can literally walk in and get a couch and walk out," he said.
The racetrack store design "forces customers through a series of experiences that Ikea can control," Gunter said. "Once on the racetrack, you're there. They see vignettes of living rooms that could be my living room. If you get a couch, a rug and a clock, you could do the entire room with their suggestions. It's a clever model."
Natalie Meyer was among the hordes of shoppers on Thursday with young children in tow.
"It's very people-oriented," Meyer said, while shopping in the children's department as her four children, ages 2 to 7, played with the Djungelorm stuffed snakes that filled one bin. "They make it comfortable for kids and parents. They let you touch things and they're not worried about things getting messed up. No one is fussing at you."