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The Swedish Connection
22 November 2011


The Swedish Connection

It’s going to get emotional here, I’m warning you at the start.

It’s just that I know a lot of retailers will be reading this and you find it hard to get in touch with your emotional side. After all you spend a lot of time dealing with hard edged rational issues. Pragmatic, common sense stuff.

Common sense tells us that we can have satisfied customers through commitment to the basics- competitive pricing, customer service, goods in stock, good housekeeping. Customers will connect for these very rational reasons. But rational connection is only half of the equation.

Emotional connection is a lot stronger. Research has shown that emotionally connected customers are much better advocates of our brand. They shop us first. They talk about us on social networking sites. They recommend us by word of mouth. They (gasp) spend more money with us.

Emotional connection comes from an empathy with our customers, from insights into their daily lives and an understanding of the issues that affect them. Customers don’t walk around thinking about the price of things all the time. Sure, with the holidays coming up, everyone worries about the expense. But that’s on a rational level. On an emotional level they are much more preoccupied with who’s turning up for Christmas, whether the cousins will fight if they are in the same room, if the house will be clean enough to satisfy Grandma’s white glove inspection. These are all highly personal issues and are based on real, sometimes stressful, situations. Just showing our customer that we understand goes a long way.

The issues can be relatively minor. Japanese supermarket Seven & i had the insight that buying bread is difficult if you live on your own: a whole loaf goes stale before you finish it and anyway there is limited storage space in Japanese city apartments. So they had the idea of selling two slices of fresh bread in a pack. A simple idea but one that connects with the customer- we understand how you live, here’s something we’ve done for you.

Sometimes it’s enough just to say a few words to show your understanding. Mothercare delivers the emotional punch with a very cute picture and a line in each department sign. For example,

“Bedtime. And for everyone, hopefully, a little peacetime.”

It’s just enough to reassure new mums that we’re thinking about them.

But the whole reason for writing this column was the inspiration gained from a visit to the new IKEA store in Tempe, Sydney. With the biggest IKEA store in the Southern hemisphere you’d think they would be jamming in a heap of new lines. The way they have used the space though is to demonstrate just how accurately they’ve nailed how we live our lives here.

Again on the parenting theme, one of their signature room sets is a new parents’ bedroom. There is the queen size bed, bedside tables, the baby’s cot, the chair for midnight feeds, the blanket over the chair, the change table, the accessories on the change table- wait, there’s more- the framed bridal photo on the dresser, the photos of the other children in the family- the list goes on. The lighting is subdued. Even the bed looks rumpled and slept in- badly. It’s as if the family just got up and left it. It says to the customer, “we know what you’re going through.”

Likewise, there’s a wedding table that looks like everyone has finished up and decided to go to the beach. There’s an adult’s table and a lower table for the littlies shoved up next to it. With the stated aim of having at least two glasses per person, the centre of the table is crammed with random empty glasses of all shapes and sizes, with the wedding bouquet tossed into the middle of it all. The kids’ table is in similar glorious disarray. Crate and Barrel it most definitely isn’t. But it makes you nod and smile. This isn’t some distant Martha’s Vineyard Utopia; it’s any suburb in Australia.

The ultimate in happy messiness is in the bedding department, where an enormous heap of tangled quilts and pillows with cardboard cutouts of jumping children reminds us that “sleep overs are meant for play…not sleep.” What parent hasn’t been there?

These are only three examples. The whole store is alive with messy but intelligent insights into how we really live our lives. The detail is incredible and truly insightful.

But that’s only half of it. Like all good storytellers, they have found the humour in it and play it all back to us. Hell, it’s all just great fun.

IKEA is the brand we all love to hate. We hate the kilometres of forced march around the store, we hate the crowds, we hate cramming heavy boxes into our car, we hate the hours of laborious assembly, we hate it that you can’t order on line. They know all this. Yet that’s all part of the emotional connection. Like a much-loved relative we tolerate and even joke about its faults while looking forward to and enjoying the visit.

So much so that during a strictly research based visit, two of us spent in excess of $500- including a self service lunch where desserts are presented first in line- and loved every minute of it. Now that’s connection.

Gary McCartney is the owner of McCartney Design and a regular contributor to Inside Retailing. You can reach him at

22 November 2011
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