Tales from the sharp end #2: IKEA, memory and the peak-end rule

Last week I committed on Twitter to revisit IKEA’s customer experience. There’s nothing like encouragement to get you going so as IKEA’s twitter channel quite liked the idea, here goes…

History time

I’ve been an IKEA customer for nearly half my life (which makes me wonder if my house should look a bit more Scandinavian than it actually does). My first trip to IKEA’s Wembley store, not long after it opened in 1988 is etched in my memory for two reasons: my eldest son was just a few weeks old and the customer experience left something to be desired. In fact, my abiding memory is my son being breast-fed whilst my wife was perched on a shopping trolley as we inched our way towards the checkout with our first ever Billy bookcase. Teething problems with the tills meant massive queues, and this poor experience was only partly mitigated by staff handing out Dime bars to the patient customers.

Yet, my overwhelming impression is positive – why? We’ll come back to that later.

Epiphany with added meatballs

From this inauspicious beginning, my relationship with IKEA grew and in my social circle we would amuse ourselves at dinner parties with further tales of epic treks through heavenly vistas of Scandi-life only to end up struggling with a too-big-for-the-car package in the inner circle of hell that is the warehouse section. And then get home to find missing components or broken chipboard…

Maybe this is why I get fewer dinner invitations these days…

My peace with IKEA came a few years on from my afternoon in Wembley. After another trek through the store we were lunching with two less-than-happy children in the Croydon restaurant. I looked around: most of the other tables were full of equally unhappy families. At this point I realised we were all in this together and, less generously, it looked like I was having a relatively good time compared with everyone else.

And we’re back

So, as I documented five years ago, I approach IKEA with fairly low expectations, but I keep going back, and last week was another instalment in the bookcase challenge – how many more will our house hold?

The finished article

It may have been the time of day, my general mood, or a late mid-life crisis, but my – successful – visit to IKEA in Croydon was curiously bland. But successful: we bought a new bookcase, which was subsequently assembled with minimal hassle (although IKEA assembly is still the subject of jokes – see a recent Spectator cartoon), and a few other ‘necessary’ bits and pieces on the way through the marketplace, an area from which any shortcuts that might previously existed seem to have been removed – either that or my stamina is not what it was.

Of course, being a customer-experience obsessive means that I feel a bit short-changed if there’s nothing to write about so I imagine that a ‘bland’ shopping experience will be fine for almost everybody. Like a trip to the supermarket, we usually just want to get our groceries at a reasonable price and get on with something else.

But IKEA is not a supermarket – it’s more of an epic journey: a kind of Dante-in-reverse, where we progress through the heavenly visions of designer rooms, through the seemingly endless purgatory of the marketplace to the low-lit hell of the warehouse – eventually re-emerging into the light having been relieved of a pound or two at the checkout. And journeys are often the source of memories.

Memories are made of this

I’m left with a conundrum: why do I view my ‘bad’ IKEA experiences more positively than my more recent ones? It could be that the ‘peak-end rule’ has come into play. This rule, formulated by Daniel Kahneman and others in 1993, posits that our retrospective memory of an experience is informed by its peak (good or bad) and the end. (My recent post on the gym that didn’t say farewell is a good example of this.)

In the case of IKEA, my early experiences, viewed from a distance are positive, partly I think because they had a good end (Dime bars and babies) and the most recent one had neither a peak or a particularly significant end (although I did appreciate the passing stranger who helped lift my bookcase into the car).

Does this matter?

If we focus on customer outcomes, we can understand the kind of experience that IKEA provides. If my desired outcome is ‘buy furniture/other stuff’ then a supermarket-style approach would work – or an online one, although it helps a lot to see something in situ – and my experience should be as efficient as possible. If my desired outcome is more around the kind of lifestyle/home environment that I want to create then the IKEA experience is well-designed: I can envision the kind of kitchen/bedroom/whatever that I want, pick up some accessories on the way to the inevitable flat-pack manoeuvres in the warehouse. Memories associated with these journeys are thus critical in my overall relationship as my desired outcome extends way beyond the transaction.

In search of that elusive dream
Geran de Klerk

Understanding the business you are in is critical to designing and implementing the right kind of customer experience. IKEA is as much in the business of creating memories as it is of selling lifestyles.

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