Found in the kitchen at parties: the German leading Ikea in Ireland

Claudia Marshall is Ireland manager forthe Marmite of the retailing business

 

Listen up, because here follows an irrefutable life hack. If you want to test the true strength of your marriage/relationship/friendship with someone, buy a Billy bookcase together at Ikea. Or a Pax wardrobe, or, if you really want to stress test the relationship, load up a Hemnes day bed.

In fact, it doesn’t really matter what you buy. Just as long as it takes a fair amount of assembly. If, together, you can get through a visit to Ikea’s labyrinthine Dublin store (the Bermuda triangle of Irish retailing), and knock a flatpack together at home without clawing out each other’s eyes, they’re a keeper.

Claudia Marshall, the recently-appointed Ikea country manager for Ireland, jumps into a canary yellow Strandmon wing chair in Ikea’s sprawling Ballymun showroom and beams like the sun.

“Out of everything we sell, this is my favourite” she says. “I like the yellow, but my husband, he much prefers the one you’re sitting on.”

My one is more of a manly slate grey. “So, Claudia, do you and your husband assemble your Ikea chairs together?” Marshall raises her eyebrows, puffs out her cheeks and makes the internationally recognised are-you-kidding face.

“Either he has to assemble, or me. Never both together,” she says.

Dublin profits

She is joking, probably. It’s still solid relationship advice from an Ikea insider.

This summer, German-born Marshall - as you would expect she is scrupulously polite - took the reins at Ikea in Ireland. The retailer is sizing up a possible future expansion in what is among its most profitable markets in Europe.

The Irish appear to be obsessed with Ikea. Almost €3 million euro rings through the tills of the Ballymun store every week - €152 million in the year to the end of August 2016, with profits of almost €12 million.

It is the ninth largest store by turnover in Ikea’s global network of about 400 outlets, and the sixth largest by floorspace. Marshall says its performance can be compared to stores in big cities such as Moscow or New York. Sales in Dublin have recently been growing at up to 15 per cent per year.

Just over a year ago, Ikea also opened an order-and-collect store in Carrickmines, south Dublin, bringing total staff numbers here up to more than 710, with the bulk of those in Ballymun. It is also understood to be scouting for other locations in Ireland, although Marshall wouldn’t be drawn on exactly where.

When the Swedish giant with global sales of €34 billion annually announces its full-year results at the end of November, it will reveal a plan to launch online shopping in the Irish market, which is closely aligned with its UK operation.

“We are working very hard in the background on this,” says Marshall. “It will come with a functionality to click and collect in Carrickmines. We are also looking into opportunities to collect at different pick-up points. But the initial start will be that you click, and then the item will be delivered to your home.”

Marmite or muse

Ikea is wildly popular, but it is also the Marmite, or possibly the muse, of the retailing business. Some people claim to hate it, even though they’ve probably never tried it. Its fans, meanwhile, can display a cultish fervour so pronounced it makes you wonder if they accidentally banged a dowel into their cranium while assembling their last purchase.

But whether it is excitement or dread, the sight of Ikea’s blue and yellow livery looming up over the M50 motorway provokes some sort of feeling in just about everybody. Yet we all know what it stands for: chic, minimalist, home-assembly furniture, cleverly designed, and very affordable.

“We do democratic design,” says Marshall, echoing its very Scandinavian central corporate tenet. “This means all our products must meet the five principles: be affordable, functional, have beautiful design, quality and be sustainable.”

Charming as she is, Marshall is very much on message, and stays that way.

My visit takes place on a sunny Friday, late morning, and people are streaming up the escalator at the entrance, ready to take on one of the most immersive shopping experiences in the industry.

A trip to Ikea is not like popping out for a pint of milk and some Jaffa Cakes. It takes planning. She whisks me off on a tour.

The Ikea tour

First stop is the Småland creche at the entrance, where you can deposit your kid while you go shopping. It is named after the Swedish “Small Lands” province where Ikea was founded, and looks like a barrel of fun if you’re under three foot tall. Sessions last 45 minutes, which seems supremely ambitious. I’ve never got past the couches in 45 minutes.

Up another flight of stairs, and we’re into the showroom proper. Here, and throughout, Ikea sets up sample rooms for various demographic groups, kitted out with the store’s wares from top to bottom, showcasing its latest designs.

The rooms are tailored to Irish tastes and are based on home visits, where members of the public throw open their doors to an entourage of Ikea researchers, who pick their way through every aspect of their homelife. Where do you hang your coat? Where do you keep your wine glasses? Where do you stack your plates, etc? Marshall has participated in three Irish home visits already.

“This room is based on a younger woman living on her own,” she says, wandering into a stylish, dimly-lit kitchen.

Ikea sells a bewildering array of products - 9,500 lines in all. Marshall says she has dropped the prices on 250 of them since July.

Each room appears to be creaking with picture frames - on mantelpieces, shelves, hanging on walls. Marshall reveals that the Dublin store sells more picture frames than anywhere else in the world.

What does that say about us? Are the Irish so vain that we can’t stop looking at ourselves, or am I mixing pictures frames up with mirrors? Marshall has the answer: “It’s because Irish people are proud of their families, their friends, their lives. When you walk into their home, they want to communicate who they are.”

We meander through the kitchens, the couches, the bedroom furnishings on the twisting, turning one-way system of the showroom, which takes up one third of the facility’s floorspace.

The naming system

Everybody who shops at Ikea knows the products all adhere to some mysterious Scandinavian naming system - the Brimnes beds, the Billy bookcases (I believe Ireland may actually be sinking under the weight of Billy bookcases).

Where do these names come from? Ingvar Kamprad, the Ikea founder, is dyslexic and found that names rather than product codes were easier to remember. An organic, ad-hoc system developed. Garden furniture, for example, is mostly Swedish islands, like Karlsö. Desks tend to be Swedish men’s names, like Micke. Beds tend to be Norwegian place names (Brimnes is near Bergen).

This system inevitably throws up anomalies that don’t always translate well. For example, years ago Ikea had a range of computer desks called Jerker, which raised wry smiles and a few blushes from men everywhere. (Stop that down the back: Jerker is merely a variant of the Swedish name, Erik.)

We ramble on to the bathrooms section. This area really does smell like someone has stepped out of the shower. Ikea, somehow, pumps a bathroom smell into that part of the store: scent marketing is a notorious retailing technique.

So, too, is disorientation. Ikea’s showroom has no windows and bends this way and that, until you feel utterly lost and dependent on them to get you to the end. I’d buy anything just to get to the tills. There are, however, barely-marked, almost secret shortcut passage ways between sections. They’re hidden like wardrobe doors to Narnia, and Marshall doesn’t take me through any of them.

The showroom ends at the restaurant, which with 520 seats is, Marshall says, the biggest restaurant in Ireland. It is very competitively priced - a fry up is less than €3 and you can feast on Swedish meatballs for less than €4.

Is it a profitable part of the business in its own right, or is it simply a customer service adjunct for the core retailing business?

Marshall doesn’t say, but jokes that it works best as a place to refuel after the showroom, and before the market hall, the second of three zones.

Google with added pine

The market hall is also broken out into different areas, meandering this way and that, with a few thousand square feet of cute and affordable smaller products –rugs, jugs, mugs, pans etc, rather than flatpack furniture.

The final zone before the tills is the warehouse, where most medium and larger sized flatpack items are picked up from the numbered aisles.

Marshall’s background is in logistics - she was customer distribution manager for Ikea in northern Europe before she entered store management - and she is delighted when I tell her that the warehouse system is very easy to understand.

It has taken us 45 minutes to reach this point, and that is without dwelling. Marshall takes me back of house, and upstairs to the staff areas. Up here are the open-plan offices, the impressive-looking staff canteen and staff breakout areas.

She tries to show me one zone, but tip-toes away. There is apparently a staff member (“co-worker” in Ikea) asleep on a bed. Another young chap is sprawled out on a couch nearby watching television in a darkened room. Up here it feels a bit like Google, minus the algorithms and with added pine.

Growth agenda

Marshall doesn’t avoid talking about herself, but she isn’t effusive about the personal stuff either. A native of Hamburg, she did an apprenticeship in logistics, later studying it at college while working. After lengthy stints working for waste management and electronics companies, she joined Ikea in 2006 to work at its distribution centre in Dortmund, Germany.

Five years later, she moved to Älmhult in Sweden where many of Ikea’s corporate functions are based. Nine months before she took on the Dublin role in May, she moved to work as a store manager-in-waiting at its store in Wembley, London. Then the Irish job came up.

“It’s not that different to supply chain. You give the right leadership, you don’t need to be a specialist in all the products, but you give direction for where we are going.”

So, where, exactly, is Ikea going in Ireland, apart from Dublin?

“We are on a growth agenda, and we are looking at future opportunities. I don’t like to get pushed into where we are looking at. But we are going to grow.”

Cork or Limerick, or perhaps somewhere on the motorway in between, would seem an obvious location. Galway would be another, although a Munster store would have a much more populated catchment area. Marshall won’t say.

The Ikea script

Ikea is a Scandinavian company, and in very Nordic way it wears its values on its corporate sleeve. There is repeated talk of “sustainability” - many of its products are made out of recycled materials.

Marshall is very happy to talk about Ikea’s many charity initiatives, such as its work with the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the local national school in Ballymun, St Joseph’s.

She is a thoroughly pleasant, and clearly a very determined and able, corporate executive. But, today, she is also very careful and sticks to the Ikea script.

Pity. Because I really wanted to ask did she know the identity of the sadist who compiled the assembly instructions for the Hemnes bed, the construction of which has taken its toll on many’s a marriage.

“I love the openness of Ireland. Everybody is so welcoming and friendly. But you’re a very nosey bunch of people,” she laughs. “You all want to know how everybody feels, where they come from, how they like things.”

She seems to approve, however. Just as Ireland, mostly, seems to approve of Ikea. To borrow a phrase from the ditty on its old television ad, you almost always find its stuff “in the kitchen at parties”. And often the sitting room, and the bathroom. And, well, if you’re lucky enough, the bedroom too...

Ikea, it seems, is in Ireland to stay. And, with Marshall at the helm, to grow.

**********

Name: Claudia Marshall

Job: Market Manager, Ikea Ireland

Age: 47

From: Hamburg, Germany

Lives: Malahide, Co. Dublin

Family: Married to Colin

Something you might expect:

“I grow the business through people.”

Something you might not expect:

“I have green fingers. I love to get my hands dirty in the garden and grow my own vegetables.”

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