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Ikea really knows what you like. It uses detailed research, including questionnaires, behavioral studies, and in-home observations, to decide what furniture to sell.
Wochit

It wasn’t just some designer’s fleeting fancy that produced Ikea’s most iconic furniture pieces such as the “Lack” coffee table and the “Billy” bookshelf.

It was shoe leather, and lots of it.

Ikea sends about 1,000 employees each year to sleuth in homes worldwide from New York to Shanghai to find out what people need. They watch residents get ready for work, eat and entertain friends. They observe them cooking and doing laundry and ask why they store their pots and pans where they do and how they use the clothes hamper when it’s not holding clothes. The researchers even spy on how people use their bathrooms.

Ikea supplements the in-person visits with thousands of written questionnaires to other consumers worldwide, as many as 12,000 at a time.

The information is stirred into a massive research-and-design stew — which is how someone folding clothes in London might determine the laundry hamper you buy when Ikea opens in Fishers this fall.

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The pieces shoppers see and buy will have been put through a Scandanavian grinder, tested in the field for their practicality, versatility and, most importantly, low price.

“Affordability is always at the top of the list, but this research gives us an idea of what people demand and use the most,” said Ikea spokesman Joseph Roth.

In addition to home visits, the company produces intense, specialized behavior studies. A report on how and where mothers play with their children led to the the design of a coffee table with rounded corners. Research about how lighting affects a home dweller’s mood produced an app-based dimmer that can adjust light color, tones and brightness.

Many of the home visits are in densely populated cities, such as New York, London, Moscow, Shanghai, and Paris, where living spaces are tight and rooms have several functions. A 2015 report on how people prepare and eat food revealed that 35 percent of people never eat in the kitchen. The information is used to consider how pieces of furniture in other rooms might accommodate dining.

“Since more people are moving into cities, space is becoming less available. We are moving away from rooms that have a dedicated purpose,” the 2015 Ikea Home Report reads.”Having one specific room for just eating, watching television or working is a thing of the past. Nowadays, we don’t just eat in the dining room; we eat all over the home.”

The smaller spaces means furniture that can be moved easily or used in more than one way. At the same time, the home has to serve other functions as well, Ikea research found.

In one of its reports, researchers probed how people make their apartments homey. About 40 percent said their homes have a distinct smell, and 65 percent of millennials said they play music to generate atmosphere. More than 18 percent said their homes were too bright. Home is also where friendships are forged; 48 percent of respondents said their most important relationships are cultivated at home so they need space both to entertain and to find solitude.  At the same time, many said Wi-Fi and working spaces are increasingly crucial in maintaining social relationships so furniture is being developed that serves those purposes.

In a study of peoples’ morning habits, the company extracted information that may seem irrelevant, but could inform design decisions later.

In New York, Ikea found, 51 percent of the population wakes up before 7 a.m. and 12 percent do some work from home before leaving for the day. More than 60 percent of New Yorkers eat breakfast at home, and 56 percent take their showers in the morning, for an average of 14 minutes.

Rick Bomberger, a senior lecturer of merchandising at the Indiana UniversitySchool of Art and Design said Ikea’s home visits are bringing furniture design up to speed with long-time practices of fashion design.

“Apparel has been doing that for 40 to 50 years, walking the streets in Paris to see what end users are wearing,” said Bomberger, who worked for The Gap Inc. and Paul Harris and is a consultant for furniture companies.

Ikea started the trend of profiling customers in furniture, but it accelerated about 10 years ago when other retailers began designing their own furniture rather than buying it from a manufacturer. Only a huge corporation such as Ikea can afford extensive home visits, but smaller companies have their own methods, such as attending trade shows and reading trade publications.

“It’s a very hot topic, profiling the customers,” said Bomberger, who teaches a course in field work. “You learn that by going into the field.”

Though many of Ikea’s ideas are drawn from visiting small apartments, the furniture is desirable in any sized home, Bomberger said. Saving space leaves room for other uses no matter where one lives, he said. “Even in a big house in Geist, people want efficiency.” he said.

Bruce Tucker, co-founder of Octane Seating of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which makes furniture for Best Buy and other large retailers, said he hadn’t heard of Ikea homes visits but they seem useful  — if you can afford them

“Typically, that is not how it is done,” he said.

Tucker said usually retailers gather feedback from customers at their stores and tell manufacturers what the consumers want. The manufacturer then produces three or four prototypes that are displayed at big furniture shows in High Point, N.C., or Las Vegas, and the store owners can order them

“For example, retailers might tell the manufacturer that people are asking for high-back chairs or more recliners, and the manufacturer will respond,” he said. If the pieces do well at the stores, the owners will ask for more the next year, or one with certain alternations, depending on what customers are saying.

Tucker described the process as “painfully slow,” but Roth said Ikea’s production is even slower — almost three years — because the company spends so much time designing, pricing and manufacturing furniture for more than 300 stores worldwide.

Kevin Woolley, an assistant professor of interior design at Purdue University, agreed that the home visits are unusual.

“Typically, clients walk in to a furniture showroom and are serviced by either salespeople or in-house designers or both,” Woolley said. “The idea of a presale home visit runs contrary to the norm.”

But he said Ikea’s practice was a good one.

“The personal touch approach is definitely where designers need to be — now more than ever,” Woolley said.

Indianapolis resident Alexandra Geske, 35, has been shopping at Ikea for 10 years, and said it was apparent that Ikea has researched how customers like to use furniture.

“There’s a lot of functionality to it, and it fits so so seamlessly into you home you barely notice it, which is the way I think it should be,” Geske said.

Geske, who lives in Woodruff Place, said she has bought carpets, tables and chairs and outfitted her kitchen from Ikea stores nationwide, including the one closest to Indianapolis in the Cincinnati suburb of West Chester, Ohio.

“Each time I go, I know I’m going to drop a few hundred dollars,” she said. “I equipped my son’s entire room from Ikea. I built a drafting table out of their sawhorses and a wood plank.”

Lindsay De Las Alas, 27, who lives in Downtown Indianapolis, said she recently moved from a 1,000-square-foot home to one three times larger and decorated it entirely from products bought at Ikea in West Chester.

“Couches, beds, mattresses, textiles, blankets, curtains,” De Las Alas said. “The furniture is nothing special, but it is very functional at a low price.”

De Las Alas said she hadn’t been aware of the home visits, “but it kind of make sense now.”

“I always thought the company kind of ‘gets it’,” she said. “But I attributed it to Scandinavian ingenuity. Now I know it wasn’t just Swedish magic.”

Call IndyStar reporter John Tuohy at (317) 444-6418. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.