EXCLUSIVE: How Ikea is preparing for Sheffield customers as opening date is revealed

Ikea's new Sheffiels store near Meadowhall will open on September 28.
Ikea's new Sheffiels store near Meadowhall will open on September 28.
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For over a decade the saga of Ikea's journey to Sheffield was held up as a sign of the city's lack of progress.

But city residents are now just seven weeks away from getting their first look inside the Swedish furniture giant's huge new superstore.

The 35,000 sq m blue behemoth has quickly risen from the old Tinsley Wire site near Meadowhall since the start of the year. It has a crèche, restaurant, bistro and car park with 1,380 free spaces.

And its doors will finally open to the public for the first time at 10am on Thursday, September 28.

“We know that anticipation for Ikea's arrival in Sheffield has been high and we are incredibly excited to be opening our doors to this wonderful city," said store manager Garry Deakin.

"I am particularly looking forward to working with all our new co-workers, and introducing them to our diverse and welcoming culture.

Some of the new products that will be on sale in Sheffield.

Some of the new products that will be on sale in Sheffield.

"We are committed to being a good neighbour and will continue to take an active role in the local community, while ensuring we provide the unique shopping experience and home furnishings expertise that our customers have come to expect.”

Ikea likes to shout about its five 'principles of democratic design' - form, quality, function, sustainability and low price - which apply to everything it does.

To emphasise the point the firm holds a huge media event every June called Democratic Design Days, to which The Star was invited along with news organisations and interior design bloggers from across the world.

Announcements of collaborations with trendy designers, bands and even Nasa may not be of particular interest to a lot of Sheffield residents.

Ikea head of design Marcus Engman, product developer Tjeerd van Waijenburg, designer Iina Vuorivirta and new business and innovation manager Tony Sandelius.

Ikea head of design Marcus Engman, product developer Tjeerd van Waijenburg, designer Iina Vuorivirta and new business and innovation manager Tony Sandelius.

But Ikea's explanation of how it prepares to enter new markets such as Sheffield could well be.

Away from the video screens and staged chats with fashionable guests at the firm's base in Älmhult, head of design Marcus Engman said plenty of research had been done to make sure the UK's 20th and third-biggest Ikea suited the people who live nearby.

"How we put products into solutions is by visiting homes," he said.

"That’s how we do different adaptations. They should reflect different ways of living depending on culture and lifestyle.

The world's media at Ikea's Democratic Design Days 2017 in lmhult, Sweden.

The world's media at Ikea's Democratic Design Days 2017 in lmhult, Sweden.

"What does an apartment look like in Sheffield compared to London?"

It's a point echoed by new business and innovation manager Tony Sandelius, who said: "Home visits are something we have done for the last 20 to 25 years.

"When we are entering a new market 50 per cent of activities are standard. The other 50 per cent can be market-driven.

"North to south there can be quite big differences in style preferences."

With that in mind, Ikea has focused on digital technology in recent years, both in product design and customer interaction. Shoppers can now download an app that will show how a particular piece of furniture will look in their living room or kitchen.

But the firm is also working to build up a community of Ikea loyalists who can give feedback and help shape future products by highlighting what their particular market or city needs.

Ikea hopes modular furniture such as these sofas designed by Tom Dixon will improve sustainability.

Ikea hopes modular furniture such as these sofas designed by Tom Dixon will improve sustainability.

"Now we make physical home visits. But when we build up this digital community we can also do visits that way," said Tony.

"How in a particular city can you start working to find particular solutions?

"We are building the digital infrastructure to be able to open up new opportunities for development."

He added: "By 2030, 80 per cent of the world’s population will live in cities. But we still sit with infrastructure from the 1960s. We need to have a completely different idea. People will need to live in smaller spaces.

"Furniture is the most static thing that we have. How do we create flexible solutions for the future than can do different things?"

Ikea has about 9,500 products in its range - all of which will be on sale in Sheffield - with 2,500 new items launched every year.

Many, such as the Billy bookcase and marius stool, are mainstays, while collaborations with designers may stick around for just a few years.

But Ikea's key aim, according to anyone you speak to at the complex in Älmhult, is to solve people's everyday problems.

To better achieve this the firm is putting more focus on ideas from the outside with a programme called co-create. It will invite students and creative startups to show off their solutions, and offer backing to those that fit the five design principles.

There will be startup bootcamps, and Ikea could become a partner in companies which have potential.

This could be encouraging news for Sheffield's two universities and much-heralded maker community.

"We want to build a community of co-creators and investors," said Tony.

"We want to invite people to come in with their own ideas for new products or solutions. But we will also post challenges out to the community with problems that we have."

Tony said universities were full of creativity, and it was Ikea's job to engage students.

"We want to utilise that and their passion to solve the same challenges that we face," he said.

"With maker spaces - how do we tap into that? How do we create conditions for them to exist?"

Tony hopes to include the 480 Sheffield staff - most of whom have been recruited from within the city region, and particularly Tinsley and Darnall - in that creative process.

The workforce, all on permanent contracts and being paid at least a 'real living wage' of £8.45 an hour, according to the firm, are currently being absorbed in Ikea's ethos ahead of the opening.

They will join a group of 180,000 staff, or 'co-workers', worldwide, which also includes global purchasing and logistics manager Henrik Elm.

He started as a store manager and worked his way up through the company, travelling the world in the process.

Henrik said he 'wouldn't have stayed' if he thought Ikea's principles were just a branding exercise.

"Many times I could have taken other choices if I didn’t think it was a company that is extremely value-based, that works for a bigger outcome than just commercial," he said.

"We have some of the most interesting jobs that people don’t know about.

"I’m sure Ikea is one of the top five purchasing companies to work for. It’s the same for logistics, the same for home furnishing.

"I couldn’t think why you would want to work for anyone else."

Ikea's plans for Sheffield have faced opposition from people concerned about the impact the extra traffic would have on air quality - something which is a particular issue in the area and led to the closure of Tinsley Nursery Infant School and Tinsley Junior School.

Ikea will spend more than £2 million improving the road network and will put an extra £500,000 towards sustainable transport.

But the firm is also trying to solve sustainability issues such as pollution and wastage on a global scale by reacting to how people use its products.

Lena Pripp-Kovac is Ikea's sustainability manager. She explained that a new 'circular' business model was being developed, which looks at the lack of money many people have in their pockets to spend their homes and food.

It also looks at product quality. Few people throw away furniture that still works, said Lena, and in the 'sharing economy' promoted by websites such as FreeCycle, it is ever easier to pass on items that you no longer want.

But on the other hand, Ikea is looking at how to encourage people to keep its products for longer - be it through customisation and modular furniture that can be added to, or by making items that create an 'emotional connection'.

And a focus on new materials should reduce the firm's environmental impact further.

"The whole new model developed with renewable and recyclable materials is a very big shift that's happening," said Lena.

"These benefits of change are massive from a sustainability point of view."

An exhibition in the Ikea Museum showing Pearl from Sheffield's use of the Billy bookcase.

An exhibition in the Ikea Museum showing Pearl from Sheffield's use of the Billy bookcase.

Global purchasing and logistics manager Henrik Elm.

Global purchasing and logistics manager Henrik Elm.

Discussing ideas in the prototype lab.

Discussing ideas in the prototype lab.

Ikea's testing lab.

Ikea's testing lab.

Old Ikea catalogues.

Old Ikea catalogues.