Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Israel is IKEA-obsessed.

Israel’s second IKEA store opened today, and hundreds of people lined up. The new store is in Rishon Lezion, near Tel Aviv, and cost NIS 400 million ($105 million). Next year, a third store will open near Haifa – by that time, IKEA officials expect that sales in the Israeli chains will reach will reach NIS 100 billion a year – by far the most profitable in the chain’s 36-country outreach.

When the first store opened – pictured above, it’s in Netanya and opened in 2001 -- 30,000 people tried to crowd in, resulting in traffic jams that tied up the whole center of the country for hours. Something approaching 2 million people have visited that first store – on 'sale' days, long lines of people stand outside, waiting their turn to get in.

Why is IKEA so popular here? Several reasons, but first of all, in Israel, IKEA isn't just a store, it's an event. Families pack up for the day – kids, diaper bags, strollers – and head out just as they would if they were going to a park. Local communities organize tour buses that leave in the morning and return in the afternoon. Several communities organized regular bus service to the store.

Both Israeli Ikeas are located in the far north of the country, as will be the third, in Haifa. Certainly those of us in the south are wondering why we don’t merit a branch down here, but even at that, getting to the Netanya store wasn’t difficult. Take the train to Beit Yehoshua – the store is in Netanya, but the train station in Beit Yehoshua is almost visible from the IKEA – then step right into a waiting sheruit – taxi-van. You’re whisked right off to the store itself. Within five minutes, you're trying to remember if you need more napkins or votive lights.

In Israel, the very idea of IKEA is unique. It’s not cheap by Israeli standards, but it does offer two Western amenities that are virtually unknown anywhere else around here: efficiency and customer service.

Imagine – if you can – a country without a single Wal Mart, Costco, Target, Kmart or Sam's Club, and then watch what happens when IKEA opens. True, in the US, IKEA is a furniture store, not in direct competition with Costco and Kmart. But in Israel, IKEA represents the spirit of shopping, which isn't necessarily about buying anything. The spirit of shopping involves looking, dreaming, planning, considering and seeing what's new. And IKEA – with its fixed prices – makes that possible.

Fixed prices – one set price for everyone, no negotiating – aren’t all that common in Israel, most certainly not for high-end items like furniture. In other local furniture outlets, acquiring something new is not only exhausting but may take several weeks or months. For almost any high-ticket item you want to buy in Israel, you first have to negotiate the price.

Suppose you want a new sofa. In Israel, that means visiting several different small, individual furniture purveyors where – if you're lucky – you'll find someone willing to put down his cell phone long enough to show you what they can order for you. There’ll be some floor sampleS and a catalogue with pictures. You pick a style and fabric, but each is a different price. It'll take several visits to several different vendors before you actually buy a sofa – which will ultimately happen only when either you or the vendor wears out, gives in, and agrees to the price. Then, you order your sofa. If everything goes well, you'll have it in several weeks. You'll just have to hope it will be the sytle and fabric you actually picked.

At Ikea, you simply walk in and buy a sofa. I’ve bought a lot of stuff at IKEA, and since I don't have a car to take it with me, I have it delivered. For a very reasonable sum, every time it’s been delivered, right inside the house, the very next day – which is really saying something, considering that Beersheba and the store in Netanya are at opposite ends of the country.

That part of IKEA is becoming intensely attractive to Israelis: Everyone pays the same price, and since you know how much it costs, you can compare. True, you'll have to assemble it yourself, but even so, IKEA makes shopping breathtakingly simple and egalitarian.

Maybe in the old days, families had the time to shop for furniture the Israeli way – endless comparisons and price negotiations. Or maybe, in that smaller more familial society, everyone had an ‘Uncle Moshe’ who they were sure was giving them a "wholesale" price. That’s not so true anymore – as Israel has grown and diversified, having ‘protexia’ – someone on the inside to get you a special deal – isn’t universal, by any means.

One difference between Israeli IKEA stores and those elsewhere in the world is that the Israeli stores also have synagogues. That's not unusual here – malls, grocery stores and even the shuk have on-site synagogues. I haven’t seen the one in Rishon Lezion yet, but the one in Netanya is lovely – the "The Great Synagogue of Ikea", another blogger called it. It's luxurious, has its own rabbi and prayer books stamped, "Property of IKEA". The velvet curtain on the ark holding the Torah is embroidered with the words, "For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem. Donated by Yehiel Moshe (Edgar) and Matityahu Bronfman."

The Bronfman family, New York Jewish business moguls, owns the store. They've also insisted that the store’s food service be high-level kosher. Which means that the Ikea store in Israel is probably the only place in the world were you can order certified-kosher Swedish gravlaks. That's reason enough to take a trip to IKEA all by itself. Most Israelis go for the Swedish meatballs, but for me, the gravlaks are almost worth the trip, all by itself.

This new branch of IKEA almost didn’t open – the rabid environmentalists almost succeeded in keeping it out. Six years ago, when this second branch was first proposed, IKEA began going through all the land purchases, city clearances, permissions, etc, and actually began building. The walls were up, 500 people had been hired – and then sequential lawsuits by environmentalists finally hit pay dirt.

It wasn’t snail-darters or burrowing owls that stopped it – Israeli environmentalists attacked the city's labyrinthine permitting process instead, and insisted IKEA hadn’t followed it. Ultimately, IKEA lost and had to start all over.

Of course a part of me hates to patronize – not to mention, hand over my shekels – to a Swedish store. For reasons far too complicated to go into here – not that I really grasp it anyway – Sweden consistently opposes anything Israel does. Nothing we do pleases them – without question, Sweden is rooting for an end to Israel and an Arab take-over of the Middle East.

Then we’ll see: how many Billy bookcases do you think the Arabs will buy?

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