Saturday, August 26, 2006

Cunning Nordic Monsters!

Michigan has arrived apparently. Sophistication has reached a level sufficient to attract the attention of that Swedish giant of tastefully subdued home products, IKEA. The Swedish way of furnishing your home in affordable good taste is now available in southeastern Michigan. Living in Ann Arbor, I of course received the catalog for the new store.

"Who says quality has to be expensive," the catalog asks. Imagine, the stuff is made of actual NUMERAR oak! And the "A" has that little umlaut over it! How European! I don't know what that word means, of course, but it screams quality, no? In ten years we'll probably learn it means "particle board" just like so many people at first fell for the French-sounding "FAUX" pearls that Home Shopping Network peddled many years ago. How long did women boast of their "faux" pearls, anyway?

But the purported quality didn't impress me. Who doesn't boast of quality? Other than dollar stores, that is. Not even the umlauted wood moved me.

What really impressed me was the appeal to harried parents.

"Kids are welcome at IKEA stores!" the catalog shouts.

IKEA boasts strollers, close parking for parents of small kids, food, snacks, diaper changing stuff, and the most diabolical of all:

You can stop saying 'don't touch that!' All day. Kids can touch the toys and furniture, open drawers, sit on sofas and lie down on the beds and so can you!

They conclude "So, bring the whole family! You won't have to hire a babysitter, and best of all, you'll be glad you brought your kids with you."

So I thought to myself, "You clever Swedish bastards. Bravo. Well played, indeed, you blonde Nordic marketing geniuses."

Oh, not all the stuff is brilliantly and diabolically clever. Changing rooms? So what? Every store has something, it seems. Close parking? Nice. But really, that's why people fake handicaps to get placards to park close. Snacks? Just how long can you shop? Surely the unavailability of food is not a limiting factor. And what do you think young yuppies put in those SUV-sized strollers complete with coffee cup holders? Their tots could live a week on the stored food on one of those babies.

It isn't so much what IKEA offers, but what they've unleashed on their unsuspecting competitors.

Consider the appeal of telling parents their kids can touch stuff and hop on furniture and look in drawers and all that. The freedom for parents to shop without constantly policing their children will surely be a thrill the first time the family goes to IKEA. And the second will be nice, too. By the third, the grimly utilitarian Swedish kitchen products won't be quite as appealing. You'll notice that the NUMERAR oak isn't really all that special, after all, notwithstanding the umlaut. And then you'll go back to Sears, or Marshall Fields, or Macy's.

And that's where you will face the horrifying fact that IKEA, in only a few trips, has actually trained your children to touch the toys and furniture, open the drawers, sit on the sofas, and lie down on the beds. And the sales associates at the non-IKEA stores are not surprisingly less than enthusiastic about that behavior.

So all of a sudden you have double up--nay, triple--your rate of corrections to your children to stop touching the products. Put that expensive looking thing down! And get off that bed! Your shoes are getting the bedspread dirty! Sigh. You drag your children out of the store, embarrassed at the looks of other shoppers and you never did pick up any of those towels on sale.

The screams surely reach all the way to Stockholm where a Swede in a suit, in a very large IKEA-furnished office, smiles in a quiet reserved sort of way.

So you give up on your past favorite stores. You are compelled to return to IKEA. The IKEA associates welcome you and assume that reserved smile as your kids slam desk drawers closed over and over again.

Years go by and after a while, you have to replace everything and you find you can only go to IKEA. Slowly, you begin to even like the Swedish decorating philosophy. It becomes your own. You don't even remember what it was like to shop at Art Van. And who would want to? Art Van doesn't have furniture made of NUMERAR wood! How gauche! What are they? Wal-Mart?

You even start to consider driving a Volvo. Funny how you once thought that "boxy" cars looked dorky. Hey, the IKEA travel mug fits so nicely in the cup holder! Eventually, you write a letter to PBS complaining about cultural insensitivity over Sesame Street's Swedish Chef and his hateful accent that contributes to anti-Swedish bigotry. And writing such a letter doesn't even seem odd to you as you tell the IKEA cashier about your latest human rights work as she rings up your new polished steel pasta cooker.

And when your kids are grown and move out on their own, you have been part of IKEA so long that it doesn't even occur to you that you can shop elsewhere.

Like I said, bravo IKEA. Well played. You magnificent bastards.

I naturally stabbed my catalog several times, set it afire, churned the ashes, and hosed the residue down on the lawn. Then I shoveled up my catalog puree and threw it in the Huron River.

I'm not taking any chances.