Ikea is the biggest furniture retailer in the world–a title that the company has managed to hold on to, amazingly, without a serious digital presence. In the age of free Amazon same-day delivery, Ikea still does a vast majority of its sales through its physical stores.
Its commitment to digital is quickly increasing, though. People visited Ikea stores 936 million times last year, but they visited Ikea online 2.3 billion times. Meanwhile, the company debuted new ways to shop using AR and VR, partnered with the visual AI startup GrokStyle, and acquired the gig economy company TaskRabbit. In short, Ikea is acting more like a tech company than a furniture maker. And within the next few years, the way you think about shopping at Ikea will probably change entirely, as the company is aggressively pursuing a new, digital identity through its evolving wave of experimental apps.
“The business model of Ikea having a blue box in a cornfield, and you jump in the car with your family and have an ice cream [at the store], is not the only thing we should offer our customer,” says Michael Valdsgaard, leader of digital transformation at Ikea. “For the majority of people in the world, Ikea isn’t accessible. Apps can make Ikea accessible.”
Note that Valdsgaard said that “apps” can make Ikea more accessible, not just “an app.” That’s because the company has aggressively experimented with mobile shopping apps over the past year, debuting many discrete pieces of software rather than rounding up all of the features into a single, perfect digital shop.
For instance, Ikea VR lets you build a kitchen–and make virtual pancakes–inside an HTC Vive. Ikea Catalog builds digital rooms on your phone. And Ikea Place uses AR to drop full-scale digital furniture right into your room. Most recently, Ikea penned a deal with the visual search startup GrokStyle to let users of its Place app search for furniture using their smartphone camera.
To Ikea, none of these apps is necessarily the answer, but a step toward figuring out what the Ikea customer experience looks like on a smartphone, one UI trick at a time. “How do you create this whole vision of the customer journey, and plug in all those capabilities?” Valdsgaard asks. He admits that Ikea will eventually consolidate some of its apps–like Ikea Place and Ikea Catalog–into one more comprehensible experience. But the company isn’t there yet, because Ikea is still sussing out the strengths and weaknesses of its various apps.
“The visual search is one of the things that clicks fast and easy. Everyone instantly gets it,” says Valdsgaard of the new GrokStyle partnership. “To me, it’s very obvious, in the future you’re going to search either verbally or visually. How we’ve searched until now doesn’t make sense for the coming decade.”