April 1st, 2010

A Saturday at IKEA. A truly marvelous idea as anyone knows. Arguments, annoy and lots of lovely proximity are a given. And an empty wallet after having strolled through their market hall is very probable to say the least.

Back home you really aren’t too sure any more whether you really needed another 3-pack of scented candles. The same goes for the little plant and the floor lamp. You actually just got that one because you were unable to squeeze by the fighting couple with the plates & spoons issue – One glance around the store and the cart is half way filled up. Magically.

A Saturday at IKEA is nothing for the fainted heart. And that’s why we went on Sunday.

While back home in Europe all you may spot are some lonely inline skaters who make good use of the closed parking lot, in Beijing IKEA’s door sign reads “Ja! We’re open”. And it’s not even something extraordinary – the legislator didn’t plan for a day off on Sunday. Seven days a week shopping until 10:00 p.m. and everyone’s easy.

Of course the disadvantage is that the shopping Sunday on Swedish ground is no different to the shopping Saturday.

Right after entering the yellow box the mind feels furnished and deranged. Not because of the heaps of people, but because of the creepily familiar environment. And that’s despite the fact that IKEA isn’t even called IKEA in China. Instead it’s Yi jia jia ju. Yepp, sounds just the same….

“HEJ” – a large banner yells right at the entrance. Underneath the directions to the Small Land. The one with the funny colored balls you can dive into. Little Mister Li would like to be picked-up by his parents…< Next to the stairs is the catalogue, filled with all the usual suspects: Lack, Benno, Galant, Ektopr, Pax and the rest of the family. Living room, kitchen, private office, bedroom – they all nicely line up in the same order they do at home. IKEA is always the same and with that it’s the largest incarnation of good old home in whole China. And it’s difficult to compute, because even though all the names are the same and everything looks familiar – there ARE differences. a href=””>At the same spot where James and Michelle use to discuss the fitting height of oven, microwave and fridge we now spot Mister and Misses Li, Mister Li’s cousin, Misses Li’s sister in law, their mother and their three neighbor couples. They hover next to the same oven and wonder about what to do with it. It doesn’t deep-fry, steam or cook. It’s no good for fish soup and you can’t even fit a rice pot into it. It’s too slow for heating up congee and even if you did, after that you couldn’t touch the pod any longer. Stupid thing.

Suddenly Misses Li has a possible solution: You probably need the hot box for foreign gourmet food like burgers and pizza. Well, she’s not too far off actually. But the differences in understanding lie much deeper within, so we better leave them to their discussion and head on further down the hallway.

We are passing a toilet that is placed right next to the walkway. And we are irritated – the bowl is covered by a perspex. Its inscription informs the nosy ones that the real toilets are to be found right next to the restaurant. We are wondering whether there would actually be customers who think it’s a feasible idea to sit down in the middle of the shop, surrounded by hundreds of people and do what needs to be done.

At the next corner, Li junior is sleeping on his girlfriend’s shoulder. In a bed – Redalen for just 1.299 RMB. Meanwhile little Li’s lovely flame is staring at the ceiling, possibly wondering how she can convince her snoring sunshine to understand the term “pick-up price” more literally. On the other hand she might be thinking about babies, shoes or jewelry. You never know.

Sleeping Chinese in Swedish beds, that’s not a rare sight around this place. The same goes for the ones sitting of couches, arm-chairs and stools. You even see kitchen table testers. Admitted, just saying this doesn’t sound too extraordinarily. The Europeans do the same. However, they usually are done with it after 2-5 minutes. That’s when they respectfully get up again from the things they don’t possess. But Mister Li turns into a real pro-tester. He puts on a skilled face and inspects every piece of equipment he can get his hands on, slides around arm rests and quietly nods a lot in comment to his findings.

IKEA may not exactly bear the image of a luxury brand for the Chinese, but it definitely is something for those who are better off. The European tends to forget this. To him the wrench house is famous mostly for equipping student’s dorms and young families apartments. But the price level on the domestic market is different around here. And so is life.

Which is why, frankly, Mister Li knows Jack about what he’s doing there. You can tell by looking at his posture which is not relaxed on any item he is testing. And you can tell by the fact that he only inspects those items which someone else had looked at before. Preferably a foreigner. Because, let’s face it, they must know. In the end it’s their equipment parlor. And so it is obvious to see that Mister Li tries to imitate a lifestyle that just isn’t his. And it’s one that he doesn’t need. However, he really does like to appear like somebody who deserves the title “connaiseur”.

Something that just won’t fit however is the surprisingly high number of people in the wrong age. Mister Li’s parents are hovering in front of white wall units, pondering about the strange choice of colors. One question is painted clearly on their foreheads: why would the Europeans choose such a light paint which catches dirt so easily? But their are not here to spend money anyway. For them it’s rather like visiting a museum for strange western habits and life styles. They look about as puzzled as Herr Meyer does inside the 120 square meter shop for green tea in Wangfujing: So much choice of things that you don’t really have any need for and whose differences you don’t seem to be able to grasp.

There is a sign at the end of the market hall. Right where the border lays to the huge self service shelfs with the DIY storage racks. It reads: “We will deliver your items on the same day if you purchase them until 6 p.m.”. Sure, they don’t put it there in English, but this is about what the sign says. Right underneath it however, waits a middle-aged woman. She looks like a customer who waits for her husband or for Mister Li’s nephew’s sister-in-law’s aunty or something.

When passing her, she silently hisses something. It doesn’t take long and you know that this is the delivery service. Except it’s not from IKEA. Here we actually encounter something that is unknown to the western furniture worlds: a taxi mafia.

And it goes like this: You discuss how much stuff is expected to be inside your shopping cart after having passed the cash point and where you need to deliver everything to. After that inevitably follow the tough price negotiation talks. After having found an arrangement, she picks up her phone and hectically makes various phone calls. We were all set for an amount of 8 Euros for a completely full cart plus two large Gorm storage shelfs – a bit of a challenge for any ordinary taxi. Misses Mafia however was very upbeat about it all.

Talking of that – she was very service oriented anyway. She’d help us put the stuff onto the miniature conveyor belt at the cash point and from there back into the cart. She’d push the second card with the bulky storage shelfs and give it to the incognito dispatch manager who showed off his status by expressing a quite recognizable English “Welcome to China”. After that he determines the right driver for the job and accompanies us to the exit. Outside we’re warmly welcome by the fellow with the car key who immediately takes care of the heaviest shopping cart and starts packing it all into a little mini van. It conveniently parks almost right in front of the building.

It all happens without further ado and the only thing the driver wants to know is whether we need his assistance in erecting the two Gorm racks, because that would make his trip last a little longer. He has all the necessary tools for installing pretty much anything right there in the van. Good man! But we don’t need his help, we’re wrench-skilled ourselves. And so off we go. He drives right up to the building door and bravely unloads everything himself as well with some impressive heavy lifting action.

I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. This whole service isn’t exactly legal. We had the doubtful pleasure of witnessing how two colleagues of Misses Mafia got escorted out of the building by some not-so-happy looking security guys. IKEA doesn’t tolerate any delivery competition.

And that’s a bit controversial. They actually profit a lot from that. The customers know they don’t have to hold back during shopping. They will manage to transport anything to their home, including a complimentary taxi service for themselves. And it would even be installed for them if they would like that. The stupid foreigner calls that a classic win-win-win situation for customers, IKEA and even the four-wheeled mafia.

Sure, mafia might not be the correct term – but it was clearly well organized. Everything went too smooth and quickly to just be a tiny money-on-the-side thing of a handful of people. But I certainly welcome any mafia that helps saving money and is polite and helpful!

Mister Li didn’t need this service. All he bought was a little brush for dish washing. It has a little sucker cup on the bottom which allows for a firm stand on a flat surface. He just thought this little sucker thing was very cute. But he didn’t get the fact that this is a kitchen item. So from now forth the brush sits next to his bathroom sink and Mister Li keeps wondering about the strange ergonomics of European utilities for hand care.

But a connaiseur keeps a stiff upper lip.

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