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IKEA: friction and the customer experience

What do customers want? From IKEA, they want and expect more than just good-value goods and smart design. The retailer has made a virtue of delivering a customer experience with added ‘friction’ over the benefits some see in making retail as frictionless as possible.

Where some organisations are now mapping out their customer journeys to identify bottlenecks, and make the path to purchase and beyond as easy as possible, for IKEA the idea is that what friction the Swedish retail creates plays a part in producing memorable and rewarding experiences – and customer loyalty.

This seems counterintuitive, so what kind of friction are we talking about? For starters, there is the effort of having to build its flat-pack furniture. Then there’s a store experience with a very particular feel that requires a certain engagement and do-it-yourself mentality. Visiting an IKEA takes time, requires you to take note of where to find items further on in the store and, unless you know the shortcuts, more or less forces you to walk through the whole store each and every time.

The theory is that this pain in IKEA’s offer is a good pain, and the store’s ongoing popularity is testament to the theory holding good. Whether it’s the car park, the staff service, picking up stock, searching stock, the check-out, the delivery or the self-creation and installation, such pains matter to customers, but not only in a bad way.

Retail analysts now talk about earning customer loyalty, which is a common goal for all retailers. The point is, when customers cannot remember a retail experience, they cannot be loyal to it. So it makes sense that the entry point to this loyalty is creating a memorable customer experience. To stand out in an increasingly uniform world, you have to differentiate a brand and build your core competences. In essence, customers stay loyal to IKEA in part because it makes them feel good and different in the right way.

So, as IKEA ably demonstrates, for some retailers it is by successfully identifying the particular branded pleasure and acceptable pain you offer that is part of the brand and how it is experienced for customers.

It isn’t only about pain, either, but that idea of engagement. When IKEA shows off a kitchen or even a 350 sq ft home in all its detail and space-saving glory, it gets customers thinking. They start to wonder about applying the ideas they can see and feel to their home lives and living arrangements. That’s part of the brand, too.

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