Elephants at IKEA

We went to IKEA yesterday. As well as a carful of storage solutions, the trip provided a great opportunity to examine how the Swedish furniture giant encourages people to spend.

I’m old enough to remember when Ikea first opened up in Britain, and completely changed the context in which we did our furniture shopping by using a new metaphor to change the context of the transaction.

Previously, people had bought new furniture to last a lifetime, usually in a “private consultation” with an expert sales assistant, after doing lots of research. It was a bit like the way new cars are sold nowadays.

Ikea changed the frame and made furniture shopping like going to the supermarket. People were piling trolleys high with colourful impulse purchases.

It’s a great example of how metaphor can be used to control the frame, the context, of an interaction.

A metaphor is a feature of language in which one kind of thing is compared to to another kind of thing.  At a simple level, you can often spot one by noticing the words “it’s like…

However, it’s increasingly being realised that metaphor is not just a feature of language – it’s a feature of the way our minds work, often outside our conscious awareness. We’re constantly comparing one kind of thing to another kind of thing, and the results of this spill out in our language. Research suggests we use about six metaphors a minute in ordinary spoken English!

In other words, metaphor is the native language of the unconscious mind. And it’s the unconscious mind which usually makes our most important decisions, including buying decisions – it’s an “elephant” carrying the conscious “rider” along with it.

So when a big retailer like Ikea wants to encourage us to buy lots of stuff, it uses metaphor to influence our “elephants”.

But it doesn’t use metaphoric language to achieve this. Instead, it uses store layout, equipment, colours, ceiling height and other “tricks” to set up the metaphor in much more subtle ways. (There’s a lot more I could write about how they do this, but I’ll save that for another blog.)

Our “riders” don’t notice these details: perhaps they’re distracted by the written metaphors busily emphasising the store’s “family values”.

But our “elephants” automatically pick up on the overall “supermarket” metaphor and go along with the herd, filling our trolleys with many more items than we planned.

Finally, at the checkout comes the reckoning. The conscious “rider”, who has been carried along in the charge, is surprised and shocked by the bill…

NOTE: “Six metaphors per minute” reference: Raymond W. Gibbs Jr., ‘Categorization and metaphor understanding’. Psychological Review 99, (3): 572-577, 1992.

6 Comments

  • Maarten

    04/01/2011

    Nice one, Judy.
    It makes me think of the room in which good old Siggy received his patients: filled with archeological statues.
    So if a patient didn’t know yet conscioulsy that psychoanalysis was about digging in one’s mythical past…
    And what about a therapy room with futuristic furniture?
    One of the thing that keeps amusing me, BTW, is that here in France there’s still folks that believe that psychoanalysis is non-directive… In what space do they receive their patients, for a starter?
    And in what space do we negotiate with our clients? In theirs, in ours, in a restaurant?

  • Judy

    04/01/2011

    Damian asked for examples (via Facebook). A few specific ways in which Ikea makes itself “like a supermarket”:
    – trolleys
    – checkouts
    – self-serve display shelving
    – brightly coloured products
    – multiple copies of the same product available
    – screaming kids!

  • Chris Morris

    04/01/2011

    Great post Judy! I met a guy recently who has designed more than 20 stores for Sainsburys. The details of how the aisles flow, the lighting, the almost-silent music… it fascinates me how they communicate so much without words.

    Did you know Ikea is also the world’s biggest charity? http://www.economist.com/node/6919139?story_id=6919139

  • Sarah

    04/01/2011

    The blog is spot on as I spent a glorious three hours in Ikea on Saturday. Even before we got in the front door, my mother commented ” and do not let me put any tealights into the trolley” (There are at least three unopened bags at home!)

    So we left with no tealights but instead we have three orchids, a plastic bag storer and a toy football! Ikea 1 Mum 0

  • Judy

    05/01/2011

    Thanks for the comments all!
    Offline, I was asked about the relationship between all this and the notion of a “car supermarket”.
    As far as I understand it, a car supermarket isn’t much like a supermarket at all (no trollies, no kids), but the marketers are using that label to try and emphasise a couple of supermarket-like features (prices, choice).
    Which is more effective in changing behaviour:
    1. saying that something is like a supermarket, or
    2. making it look, feel and function like a supermarket?

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