At the altar of Scandinavian commerce

At IKEA, shoppers all but genuflect

Observations

September 19, 2004|By Susan Campbell | Susan Campbell,HARTFORD COURANT

Two people were crushed to death and 16 were hospitalized when an IKEA store opened earlier this month in the Saudi Arabian town of Jeddah.

In a scene one eyewitness called "medieval," nearly 20,000 shoppers lined up to be among the first 250 shoppers and receive vouchers worth 500 riyal, or about $133. An 18-year old security guard, who'd been spraying perfume into the faces of shoppers who were overcome by the crowds, described for Arab News the death of a Saudi man crushed in front of him:

"I was telling him to say the Shahadah [a Muslim declaration of faith], but he wasn't responding. I know he was dead," the young man said. "It was the first dead body I saw in my life. I will never forget it."

And so it goes for the home goods store turned - forgive me - holy shrine by consumers from Sweden to Australia to Russia to China. People go gaga - and sometimes get incredibly stupid - over a shot at a streamlined $13 high chair or a funky $40 floor lamp.

Plenty of scholarship has been devoted to the burgeoning mall-as-church mentality. Both sites employ architecture to move participants to a higher level of being, say, from unbeliever to acolyte, and from shopper to consumer. Both sites have lots of plants, running water and contemplative spaces sprinkled among areas meant for business, or conversion.

As Philadelphia writer Tom Hartman says, it's hard to read much IKEA commentary without feeling like you're in church. Print media refers to the furniture behemoth as a cult, a "rock-solid cathedral, a place to go for the sacred wisdom of good design." The company's magazine, Space, says one writer, is "a glossy Bible that delivers, pre-packaged, the Gospel according to Ingvar Kamprad," the company's founder.

Plus, it's Scandinavian, and we all like Scandinavians, don't we? We may not understand their politics, but they have Vikings and really cool Christmas traditions. Plus, they all just look so darn healthy.

If IKEA were a religion, it would be booming, with stores in Europe, North America, Australia, Russia and China. According to the Guardian newspaper, 310 million people visited the company's stores worldwide last year. One estimate says that on any given Sunday, twice as many Brits visit an IKEA as darken a church pew.

Whenever a new mission - Sorry! A store - opens, the populace and the media treat it like, well, the second coming. Feeling out of control? Can't change your life if you had to? Worried about terrorists? Here. Cuddle up to this new pillow. Drink from this still-unscratched glass. There. Feel better?

Social scientists say that so-called cocooning - futurist Faith Popcorn's term for settling into one's home environment - is most popular when life seems most tenuous. Could life seem less stable now?

I darkened an IKEA pew recently, on Labor Day, a gorgeous sunny day that any other time would have been perfect for the beach. You'd think a store would be a wasteland at the last hurrah of summer, but no. The cars circled like sharks in the parking lot, and inside, the children's play area, according to a painted lady bug, was full. No more room in the magical forest.

Not much room outside the forest, either. Shopping carts battled with shoppers with arms full of the sleek designs, the great buys, the gotta-have-its. It was a well-mannered mob, and the weird thing? They all looked happy. The merchandise was marked, the checkout guy was cool, and the smell of cinnamon rolls beckoned to a crowded lunch stand. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. I know a cult when I see one.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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