Chances are the name Ingvar Kamprad doesn’t mean much to the typical home furnishings shopper, but take his initials – I and K – and combine them with the first letters of the farm he grew up on – Elmtaryd – and his nearby village – Agunnaryd – and you have four letters that make up one of the most recognizable names in the world: IKEA.
Kamprad founded the retailer when he was 17 and when he died this weekend 74 years later he had achieved what few in the history of retailing – not Sam Walton, not Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck, not Mickey Drexler – have ever done. Not only did he revolutionize the way people shop for furniture and home furnishings but he did it on a global scale unprecedented in worldwide business. IKEA told consumers they didn’t have to be intimidated when they bought furniture, worried that it would be the right decision for the next 30 years of their (and their kids) lives. Buy this credenza, just put it together, it’s a great value with timeless styling, and after a few years if you get tired of it – or it falls apart when you try to move it – it’s OK: you got your money’s worth.
Nobody had ever approached these product categories this way before, and hardly anybody has learned how to copy the formula in home. But it’s quite clear that without IKEA, we wouldn’t have H&M, Zara and their ilk in fashion. IKEA did not remain a Swedish phenomenon…or even just a European business. It has expanded throughout the world and now operates about 310 stores in nearly 40 countries, including franchises.
None of it would have happened with Kamprad, whose philosophy of simply designed, inexpensive products, sourced from around the world and sold in giant destination stores – is unequaled in the retailing world. And if his reputation was blemished by past associations with European fascism—which he later admitted he deeply regretted — it does not diminish his contributions to the retailing business. Not bad for a farm boy from Sweden who told people he just liked to be thrifty. Some $47 billion a year in sales later, that philosophy furnishes homes all over the planet.
Warren Shoulberg is a business journalist specializing in the home furnishings industry. He visited the first US IKEA outside Philadelphia soon after it opened in 1985. He bought a lamp.