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Ikea Employs Anthropologists to Better Understand Its Customers

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

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Ikea pulled in $39 billion in sales last year, almost double its 2005 sales level, and is aiming to add 182 stores to get to an astounding 500 stores worldwide by 2020. Fortune investigates how Ikea has been so successful in so many markets around the world, and it comes down to strategy, studies, and sweating the details. "The more far away we go from our culture, the more we need to understand, learn, and adapt," Ikea's head of research Mikael Ydholm told the magazine. Here are six key insights from Fortune about Ikea's obsessive research into both its customers and its designs:

Home visits: Because people sometimes fudge the truth on Ikea's research study, the company sends anthropologists to volunteers' homes to find out how they live with their furniture. The company recently installed cameras in study participants' homes in Stockholm, Milan, New York, and Shenzhen, China to discover how they use their sofas.

Catalog Customization: Ikea claims that its catalog has the biggest run of any publication in the world, with 217 million copies printed for the last catalog issue. The catalogs are ultra-customized; 67 versions are printed in 32 languages.

BTIs: Those crazy-cheap Ikea items are known in the company as BTIs, or breath-taking items. Ikea adjusts the price of its breath-taking items based on the local economies of each store.

Ikea Hates Air: Air in packaging represents wasted space, and flat packing allows Ikea to keep costs down. The retailer uses 800 million square meters of cardboard a year.

"Husband Killers:" Ikea calls products that are hard to put together "husband killers" and sometimes enlists new employees to assemble furniture as a test. Thanks to improved product design, Fortune reports that the number of "husband killers" is down at Ikea.

The One Category Ikea Will Never Do: Ikea's design manager Marcus Engman tells Fortune that Ikea will never get into electronic technology or other gadgets. "We weren’t any good there," Engman says.