Understanding the Hype Around the World’s Largest IKEA

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People flocked to the first IKEA store in the Philippines. Photo: courtesy of IKEA

When photographer Miguel Nacianceno signed up for the opening of the first IKEA store in the Philippines, he was eager to buy a beautiful set of cups for his kitchen. Maybe a lamp too. But when he arrived at the five-story, 700,000-square-foot building in the city of Pasay in Metro Manila, he was shocked to see the sheer volume of people crowding the area.

As soon as he entered, his suspicions were confirmed.

“Usually, [the showrooms] it would be spacious, but at the pace they were going, I was right next to someone the entire time,” Nacianceno told VICE.

Then, he grabbed his face mask and ran for the exit.

Nacianceno is just one of many eager Filipinos who were waiting for the launch of the IKEA store in the Philippines, considered the biggest store by the Swedish furniture giant in the world. Although he couldn’t bear to be around other shoppers because of the pandemic, many others didn’t seem to mind.

“With the pandemic, I used to say to myself, ‘I’m not leaving until the hype is over,’ but when [IKEA] They emailed me and told me I could book a spot, I really did,” architect Arlene Maslog told VICE. “Of course, I was there the first day. So funny. But I was so excited I forgot there was COVID.”

Like Nacianceno and Maslog, many were thrilled when it was announced that IKEA was opening a store in the Philippines. There were rumors about it for years, until the expansion was made official in 2018, an ad that instantly went viral.

Earlier this year, closer to the official launch date, the IKEA Family website went down, reportedly due to an increase in Filipinos trying to sign up to join the loyalty club. Now, with the physical store finally open, spaces to schedule a visit to the branch are immediately reserved. But why?

“I think for anyone who has traveled and visited IKEA elsewhere, it’s cool. Easy to be a fan”, said Nacianceno.

While certain IKEA furniture has been criticized for using low-quality materials and breaking easily, many are still drawn to their designs and prices. For some, it’s an alternative to the generic brands found online; for others, it’s a way to achieve Pinterest mood boards and Instagram aesthetics without breaking the bank.

“[IKEA] makes everything so accessible, especially from a consumer perspective,” said furniture designer Pierre Kayser Go. “It’s good because it’s well designed and fits a certain aesthetic.”

Maslog, for example, bought a shoe rack and a bench during his trip to the new IKEA store. Things she “couldn’t find locally” that were supposed to replace the “fragile” versions she bought online.

But many have noted how this new convenience for consumers can be detrimental to local artisans.

“From a business standpoint, I think this is really going to kill a lot of local vendors, like those in the same price range,” said Go, explaining how difficult it is for local vendors, especially those selling fast furniture, to compete with IKEA products in terms of construction and supply.

“I love small IKEA pieces like lamps, storage boxes, cups. But I’m also worried about local furniture companies. I don’t consider myself a total fan of IKEA, but I appreciate the convenience,” said Nacianceno.

Maslog agrees that IKEA’s arrival would likely impact the local furniture industry, but thinks high-end furniture companies will not be affected.

And the hype isn’t just about the furniture.

Thanks in large part to social media, IKEA is now ubiquitous. You hear about it from vloggers and friends of friends who visited a store when they traveled. People post time-lapse videos of their homemade makeovers and photos of meatballs in sauce, as they do with their In-N-Out burgers. Philippine TikTok is now full of influencers sharing their IKEA experience and giving tips to potential buyers.

This made IKEA a recognizable brand in the Philippines even before its expansion into the country, and the image of an IKEA buyer was also well-known: after walking through the maze of showrooms, you eat the famous meatballs to top it all off. It is such a big part of the experience that in the Philippines, there is an anthropomorphic mascot called “Tito Ball” (Uncle Ball).

“When it opened, people flocked more to the food, to the restaurant. That’s another thing about Pinoys. [IKEA] it’s really suitable for Filipinos because we love shopping and we love to eat, and IKEA has both,” Maslog said.

The hype is similar to that of other international brands that have settled in the country. In the past, Filipinos would queue for hours when opening Shake Shack and H&M. And it’s not just in the Philippines; IKEA opened with similar fanfare in India and New Zealand.

For many, it’s not just a store, but a shared experience.

“It was like Disneyland. It was just a happy event. It was so much fun to be there during the opening. I’m so ashamed of myself, but I really enjoyed it,” Maslog said.

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