Retail therapy

Why is there such a fuss over IKEA Hyderabad? A walk through the store provides answers (and doubts)

Biryani, single mattresses under Rs 3,000 and Billy bookcases: the retail giant’s flagship store is all about scale, affordability and an Indian touch.

The IKEA store in Hyderabad resembles a giant aircraft hangar in the heart of HITEC city. Spread over four lakh square feet, the building could easily house a handful of Airbus A380s.

The choice of location for the Swedish giant’s flagship store in India seems perfect: the retail store is surrounded by high-rise construction sites, a mini township that will soon be home to the thousands of tech employees who work in the nearby IT parks. The campuses of multinational conglomerates such as Microsoft, Google, Tata Consultancy Services, HSBC and Deloitte surround the blue and yellow (colours of the Swedish flag) façade of the retail store. The newly-opened ITC Kohenur is barely a mile away in the east, while the Trident Hotel, located in the opposite direction, isn’t too far either.

The IKEA store launched on August 9 and is a culmination of a journey that started more than six years ago. It was the brainchild of Telangana’s Special Chief Secretary (Industries) at the time, Pradeep Chandra, who wooed the Swedish retail giant, convincing them to choose Hyderabad as the launch city over several others that were in the race, including Bengaluru, Mumbai and New Delhi. While IKEA’s Global CEO Jesper Brodin said, at the launch press conference, that they have “spades in the ground in many other locations across the country,” the store’s opening in Hyderabad has been a victory for the state government, who all but laid out the red carpet. Land allotments and permissions were expedited and an entire metro station’s plan was changed, so it would eventually get constructed opposite the store.

The IKEA store in Hyderabad. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP.
The IKEA store in Hyderabad. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP.

Why all the brouhaha for a furniture brand? The answer becomes evident after a walk through the store. On the first floor there is a 1,000-seater restaurant, among the largest in India, serving a mix of Swedish and Indian cuisine. IKEA’s famous Swedish Meatballs find their way to the menu (in a chicken avatar, keeping in mind cultural sensibilities), while the smoked salmon tastes like it was fished but a few moments ago from a stream in Sweden. There are also an impressive array of desserts and of course, Hyderabadi biryani (for Rs 99), samosas and dal makhani.

Next to the restaurant is the entrance to the labyrinth that houses IKEA’s 47 show apartments. Ranging in size from small and medium to large, each space had been fitted with its own design aesthetic. Products are displayed within the setting of a living room, bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, children’s nursery, a library doubling up as a study, artworks hang on the wall, rugs sit perfectly positioned on the floor. It’s not hard to sit in one of the many armchairs and be transported to a Los Angeles loft or an apartment in New York’s meatpacking district.

There are Indian touches aplenty. IKEA’s design teams visited more than 1,000 homes around the country across various income groups, to get a sense and feel of the cultural sensibilities and needs. They then curated the merchandise for the store, along with the themes and designs for the show apartments, which include pictures of Indian monuments, such as the Taj Mahal, hanging beside Beatles posters and little touches like laundry in an apartment balcony. There are also several innovative elements: intelligent storage options that hide away into furniture that could quite possibly surprise an Indian consumer, who is otherwise used to a very different school of furniture design.

A girl checks one of the 47 show apartments at the store. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP.
A girl checks one of the 47 show apartments at the store. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP.

A floor below the show apartments displays the entire range of IKEA’s 7,500 products, to browse through which, the customer is expected to walk along an arrow-marked path that IKEA calls “the long natural way”. It’s hard to leave without viewing everything on display: the payment counters are more than a kilometre away from the entrance and it is near-impossible to stick to a pre-determined shopping plan and not browse through everything else that’s on offer. There are scented candles, a fridge for Rs 32,800, cupboards, sofas, duvets, pillows, bedsheets, towels for Rs 145, throws made in Thailand for Rs 250, glass vases for Rs 45, Indian hand-woven carpets at throwaway prices, faux orchids, Balinese wheatgrass in a pot for display...the list goes on.

For people visiting an IKEA store for the first time, though, it can be a bit overwhelming: there’s just so much to do, so many things to see. Bins filled to the brim with products, a giant price tag above proclaiming the unbelievably low price, entreating you to pick it up – this is IKEA’s “bulla bulla” sales technique, in which items are displayed in vast volumes, giving an impression of inexpensiveness.

Customers began lining up and shopping early on Thursday. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP.
Customers began lining up and shopping early on Thursday. Photo credit: Noah Seelam/AFP.

Marketing techniques aside, IKEA certainly has an amazing line of products. There’s an induction hob that looks like it was teleported from the Starship Enterprise, for just Rs 3,650, there are Tatami mats for Rs 2,990 that double up as rugs and there’s even a single mattress for Rs 2,790. The products are an ample testimony to IKEA’s ingeniousness at mastering economies of scale, cutting costs and translating that into low retail prices.

While it’s certainly an attractive proposition for bargain-hungry consumers, there are entire ranges of products, which don’t conform to the cheap-price strategy. There’s a sofa set for Rs 80,000, an excellently-built wardrobe for Rs 1.2 lakh, but having said that, there is a marked absence of high-end luxury products. There’s none of the uber expensive leather loungers like the ones at Natuzzi. The finishes might be admirable, but there’s no mahogany and shiny teak. Designs might be similar to BoConcept, but the furniture is more ergonomic than luxury.

Customisation is possible for many of the furniture items, and the DIY headache that comes with most IKEA purchases worldwide has been removed in India, as an exception. Over 150 staff members have been trained to assemble the goods at a buyer’s home and the brand has tied up with UrbanClap, an app that connects people with service providers such as carpenters.

Bins filled to the brim with products. Photo credit: Subrat Patnaik/Reuters.
Bins filled to the brim with products. Photo credit: Subrat Patnaik/Reuters.

The company have several expansion plans, including stores in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru in the pipeline. For Hyderabad though, it’s all about the buzz (and traffic jams leading to the store) for now. IKEA could possibly be a gamechanger for the city’s retail industry and might well put a big dent in the businesses of many local home furnishing stores. However, the locals in the city had their reservations.

“I will wait and watch,” said Mohammad Noor, to the newswire AFP. “I have never been to an IKEA store before. But I believe there it’s all compressed wood. Indian wood is much better.”

In the same story, Siddharth, who is in charge of a Hyderabad furniture shop, said, “It will be a flop, I tell you. The regular furniture consumer will stick with the more solid wood available in the Indian market...I don’t think it will give us much competition.”

Construction work going in June. Noah Seelam/AFP
Construction work going in June. Noah Seelam/AFP
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