Although somewhat irreverent, it’s tempting to see the lid being placed on Ingvar Kamprad’s coffin, last week, as a rather apt metaphor for the legacy of this giant retail genius of the 20th century.

Ikea pioneered boxes: very big boxes crammed with thousands of small ones; shedloads of affordable flat-pack furniture (“knock down” items at knockout prices) that democratised stylish interiors for generations of consumers all around the world.

Hordes of loyal shoppers drove many, many miles to negotiate yet another mile of labyrinthine store layout, so as to purchase flat-packed goods that would put a smile on the faces of their home sweet homes.

Smiles that maybe tended to wane as they later tried to piece the unboxed items together!

But in our all-consuming online world today, another genie is out of an altogether different box: we can stay at home and have our purchases driven to us. And that’s not all.

“The big boxes of yore will have to reinvent themselves as wholly entertaining, super-shopper-friendly destinations. Essentially, for this to happen, the much-mouthed mantra of ‘customer centricity’ has to become a sine qua non, not just a cliché”

When chairing a session at the Shoptalk conference in Copenhagen last October, I thought I was being too facetious perhaps when I asked my panellist Dr Philipp Kreibohm, the founder/CEO of Home24: “When will my flat-packed table be delivered to my home by a drone, while a driverless Uber arrives with a robot to assemble it?”

“We’re working on it,” he replied.

And it’s not just the genie who’s out of the box because this, precisely, is where all of us now have to think. Stores won’t suddenly, arguably ever, become redundant.

However, the big boxes of yore will have to reinvent themselves as wholly entertaining, super-shopper-friendly destinations. Essentially, for this to happen, the much-mouthed mantra of “customer centricity” has to become a sine qua non, not just a cliché.

A recent snapshot of a personal experience in the US perfectly illustrates the point, and fits neatly into the box leitmotif of this column.

A bad experience

Best Buy has championed customer centricity for well over a decade. Its CEO was vocally proclaiming the strategic importance as long ago as 2004.

So in New York last month, when I wanted to choose a portable music system as a gift for an old friend/my host, I took him to the Best Buy flagship on 5th Avenue.

Despite a patent excess of vendors, getting the attention of just one of them was difficult; but there was worse to come.

He took us to the relevant fixture with a dozen SKUs on display and we asked to look at the top-of-the-range Sony item. “I can’t open the box,” said the vendor, “and there’s no display model.”

We explained that the reason why we’d gone to the store, rather than buying through Amazon online, was because we wanted to see and touch the controls. (My host, an eminent attorney of somewhat advanced years, is a proud technophobe).

The vendor told us that it was company policy not to open the box and he suggested we should simply buy the item, leave the shop and then open the box on the sidewalk. “If you then don’t like what you see,” he added, “just bring it back in and we’ll give you a refund.”

Online, of course, there would have been no box to open. We could have zoomed in on all the minutiae and flipped the product every which way.

Were the eccentricity of the human behaviour in this offline experience to become the norm we might as well shut up shop, all of them, and leave the screens to reign supreme. 

There’s no more apposite a metaphor for retailers today than to think and act outside of the box.