As Ikea celebrates 30 years in the UK, Emily Hardy visits the furniture giant’s home in Sweden to dig into its past and uncover its future.

Thirty years ago this month an international retailer set up shop in the UK and changed the homewares sector.

Ikea’s arrival brought low-cost, long-lasting furniture to the masses. Indeed, since 1999, more than 8.7 million Billy bookcases have been sold in the UK – that’s one sold every minute.

Ikea of course is a global phenomenon with more than 412 stores in 49 markets. It is also one of the world’s biggest restaurants, feeding 650 million customers every year.

But what is the secret to its success? Retail Week trekked to its nerve centre, Almhult in rural Sweden, to find out.

Emily Hardy visits Ikea's birthplace to discover what drives the retailer.

Exiting the train station, there’s little to see besides off-white, uniform concrete buildings. Initially impersonal and indistinguishable, this town doesn’t scream innovation and entrepreneurialism.

However, this is not only the location of Ikea’s first store but the beating heart of the homewares giant.

“Kamprad’s Ikea had the aim of ‘creating a better everyday life for the many people’, which is still at the retailer’s core”

Ingvar Kamprad from Elmtaryd in the parish of Agunnaryd founded Ikea in 1943 at the age of 17, originally selling pens, picture frames, table runners, watches, jewellery and nylon stockings.

However, Kamprad, now 91, soon began specialising in furniture and opened its first showroom in Almhult in 1951.

Influenced by the poverty Sweden had endured earlier that century and its more recent push to become a modern, egalitarian society, Kamprad’s Ikea had the aim of “creating a better everyday life for the many people” – an idea which is still at the retailer’s core.

Democratic design

Almhult, which is also home to the Ikea museum – a three-storey site (complete with meatball-themed restaurant) that champions the Ikea growth story – is the retailer’s global centre for range, supply and business development and is a hive of activity and innovation.

“Every product, be it a toilet brush or a chest of drawers, is created with the same starting point – the total maximum price”

Ever wondered how Ikea seemingly has a solution to everything? The answer is democratic design.

Every product, be it a toilet brush or a chest of drawers, is created with the same starting point – the total maximum price – and is developed with five key elements front of mind: form, function, quality, price and sustainability.

Using these principles, the designers here create between 1,500 and 2,000 new products every year.

Ikea Sweden

Ikea design centre

The Democratic Design Centre

While many of these never make it through the rigorous testing process and into the stores, those that do often become universally recognisable, such as the Malm chest of drawers.

In the entrance to the Democratic Design Centre, an impressive bookcase stretches from floor to ceiling alongside a sign that reads ‘Make room for life’.

This line not only plays to the retailer’s design ethos but is intended to encourage a healthy work/life balance among employees.

This centre is where Ikea makes its prototypes – a process now sped up with the use of 3D printing – and where items are displayed and given further consideration in its concept store.

Those that make the grade are meticulously tested at Ikea’s labs before they can be shipped across the globe.

Commitment to innovation

What sets Ikea apart from its competitors is its commitment to innovation. It has teams of dedicated “future-gazers” to ensure it stays ahead of the curve and is prepared for any eventuality.

Co-create Ikea – one of the firm’s newest initiatives – is an open invitation to customers and start-ups worldwide to contribute to the Ikea design process and proffer solutions.

Ikea Hotel

Almhult’s unforgiving, cold surroundings dissolve upon entry to the famous and welcoming Ikea Hotel.

While spending the night in what is effectively an Ikea showroom may not be everyone’s cup of tea, the hotel – furnished top to bottom in Ikea products – provides an appropriate and comfortable base from which to explore the company’s nerve centre.

Ikea hotel lobby

Ikea hotel lobby

The lobby of the Ikea Hotel

“Innovation is kind of a buzz word,” says Co-create Ikea project manager Mikael Ydholm, “but Ikea was born as a challenger”.

Ikea will run a 10-week bootcamp during which 10 start-ups will be mentored in Almhult and, from January next year, Ydholm says, shoppers will be invited to share their ideas too.

“This is not a side project,” he adds. “We’re democratising product development.”

Alongside this, Ikea is leading the way in 3D imaging, virtual reality and motion media in its digital lab.

The retailer is on the brink of launching, in collaboration with Apple, the “first augmented reality app that will enable [shoppers] to make buying decisions”.

Can Ikea’s 30th year in the UK be its most dynamic?

Back on home soil, Ikea’s UK business is in growth mode.

It is run by one of its first UK employees, Gillian Drakeford, who worked on the shopfloor of its debut store in Warrington 30 years ago.

Her long tenure, and ascension through the ranks, is not uncommon at Ikea, which has engendered and rewarded loyalty since its inception.

Now, as an ambassador of the Living Wage and Retail Week’s Be Inspired campaign, Drakeford bangs the drum for employee rights and is committed to being a good employer.

“Ikea is trialling a new web platform in the UK, has launched two new London distribution centres and opened a handful of new smaller stores”

She rejoined Ikea’s UK division four years ago after an 11-year stint running its Chinese operation, and her return has brought a new dynamism to the business.

As well as opening two new superstores – one in Reading last year, which marked the first Ikea opening in seven years, and another last month in Sheffield– Ikea is trialling a new web platform in the UK, has launched two new London distribution centres and opened a handful of new smaller stores, dubbed order and collection points.

The UK has thrown up new challenges for the Ikea group. As the slumped pound drives up sourcing costs, Ikea has said it will explore the use of materials, such as bamboo, to ensure it can stick to its low-cost promise.

In true Ikea fashion, Brexit is not viewed as a problem, but another excuse to innovate.

For innovation and its focus on democratic design have built Ikea into not just the UK’s, but the world’s, largest furniture retailer.

Hopping ahead with TaskRabbit

Ikea has become the latest firm to home in on the booming gig economy and, in doing do, is vying to make itself fit for the future.

By acquiring on-demand handyman service TaskRabbit, Ikea has joined the likes of Dixons Carphone and John Lewis in ensuring it can fulfil multiple functions for its shoppers.

In the way Dixons Carphone aims to get and keep customers’ tech working with its KnowHow services business, Ikea – following a successful trial in London and America – has snapped up TaskRabbit to give its time-poor shoppers the option of having their flatpack furniture constructed for them.

It is unlike Ikea, which prides itself on being self-sufficient, to form this sort of partnership, but – particularly in the UK – the need to adapt rapidly to changing consumer demands is of paramount importance.