By Liubava Shatokhina, Senior Anthropologist
We all know that Western companies are suffering in Russia these days, right? This is the common truth about Russian markets that we get from the news today. However, basing business decisions purely on the avoidance of unfavorable macroeconomic forces and political risk may lead to overlooking some opportunities based on micro-level cultural phenomena. This can be the route that many companies could tap into if they just knew how to see the world differently.
Recently, CNN Money ran an article about IKEA’s surprising success in Russia amid a severe recession caused by the free fall of the ruble. The news piece discussed how Russian consumers are spending “more rationally” than before the crisis. We agree that the new economic rationale plays to IKEA’s advantage. However, there’s something much deeper behind the success of the Swedish furniture giant. There are many cheaper domestic goods providers in the Russian market after all.
IKEA as the aspirational value marker
The success of IKEA can only be understood in relation to the way people experience the brand. For St. Petersburg and Moscow dwellers, going to IKEA/Mega is a special event in a chain of more routinized shopping practices. For visitors from cities where there is no IKEA (such as Russian provincial cities or former Soviet Republics), this is an even more intense and significant encounter. Visiting IKEA is on the tourists’ to-do list alongside a visit to the famed Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg or Red Square in Moscow. Having IKEA in a city is a mark of the central and privileged position of the area and its dwellers in comparison with more peripheral and less developed surrounding settlements.
Besides the actual IKEA stores, there are other signs of IKEA’s presence in big Russian cities. Many new cafés and restaurants that represent Western modern urban culture have almost everything from IKEA. When visiting friends from a similar social milieu, there is a joy of recognition of the same IKEA furniture and design items that people have in their own homes. IKEA goods are an important part of the new identity for young urban dwellers aspiring for Western culture. IKEA products create small private and semiprivate islands of Western life in the unstable environments of Russian urban public spaces.
The Russian IKEA experience
IKEA stores stand out as particularly welcoming spaces in shopping centers. With their real life interiors, IKEA stores make the whole shopping process an experience like a museum visit in which people are introduced to the lives of others (people from other places, times or social classes). Russians go to the stores not only because of great interior design and the relative affordability of goods, but also to be educated on how ‘other,’ that is, Western people, live and consume. As the ruble crisis has drastically cut traveling, IKEA visits have emerged as a domestic window onto the Western world.
People hardly ever go to IKEA alone. A promenade along the showpieces of modern urban life is accompanied by a variety of discussions provoked by the setting. The ‘visit to IKEA’ can be seen as a shared significant event: new life stage transition, connectivity building or strengthening, and acting out middle class values through consumption. Unlike most mundane shopping situations that are performed automatically and without any excitement, a visit to IKEA creates the feeling of a celebration of the new god of domesticity in the era of mass consumption. IKEA attracts both poor students and relatively wealthy office managers. Both groups are young but despite different incomes, they are urban, open and liberal in their worldviews, and this sets them apart from the rest of the population.
So instead of merely providing a rational consumption choice during harsh economic times, IKEA has become a resonant symbol of identity for people who live in Russian cities. In a situation where Europe has increasingly distanced itself from Russian citizens, IKEA gives them a chance to recreate an illusion of distant but desirable loci in the space of their private homes. We believe there’s a lesson to learn here.