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Altona’s unique Ikea

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Ikea looming over the Altona neighbourhood

Ikea looming over the Altona neighbourhood

Hamburg has another claim to fame: the first and, so far, the world’s only stand-alone Ikea store in a dense urban area.

Downtown Altona, a neighbourhood of Hamburg which used to be a separate city, has the highest population density of Hamburg. It enjoys super transit service, and, maybe as a result, over 40% of the residents don’t own a car.

Ikea’s strategy is to target customers in inner cities that are poorly served by its suburban, car-dependant model. Germany is Ikea’s largest market, with a great many urban residents. Altona seemed a good fit to try the idea.

Of course, this being a new building in Germany, the store is highly energy-efficient: thick insulation, natural lighting, and so on. There is also an innovative ventilation system with heat recovery that does not recirculate inside air, but ensures that fresh air from the outside is brought in and heated by the exhausting air; this is controlled by CO2 sensors in the various areas to ensure that exactly as much fresh air as needed is brought in to minimize heat loss. But this is more than an “eco-bling powered box”, to use Matthew Pennycook’s memorable expression.

The key here, for any large retail outlet, is transport: how do customers, and merchandise, get to and from the store?

Ikea had set for objective a 40-60 split, with 60% of its customers coming by transit, and only 40% by car. Was it realistic? When spokesman Rainer Doleschall was asked about the possibility of an Ikea-related gridlock, he just replied: “Good question. Next question?” It could have turned sour, espcially considering that on the site selected by Ikea was an abandoned building that had been turned by the locals into an arts collective, Frappant. “Kill Billy” stickers were everywhere (a reference to Ikea’s iconic low-cost Billy shelves).

The empty 70's vintage building that Ikea replaced

The empty 70’s building that Ikea replaced

Ikea did its homework, starting with information campaigns; they held a referendum and pledged to abide by the decision of the neighbourhood. They also avoided a confrontation with the Frappant artists, who had staged an occupation of one of the suburban Ikea stores; Ikea staff was told to be nice and offer them coffee, disarming the protest.

But artists or not, few like an abandoned building in their neighbourhood, so despite fears of gentrification and traffic, the locals approved the Ikea proposal by a margin of three to one.

Remarkably, the city stepped in to help the artists of Frappant; the collective still exists, and is now housed in what used to be the Viktoria Barracks, a bit further in the same neighbourhood.

The popular ground floor cafe.  There are two other floors of eateries.

The popular ground floor cafe. There are two other floors of eateries.

As for traffic estimates, these were wrong, but in a good way; based on parking lot occupancy, Ikea officials think that nearly 90% of the customers come without a car. This has caused some distortions in marketing: small items such as glassware are hot sellers, compared to the usual workhorse of the chain, furniture. Even more surprising is that the store’s restaurant has the highest volume of any store. Many of the store’s customers are local workers who appreciate Ikea’s cheap, filling fare. Since all these items are profitable, Ikea is quite happy with the results.

Still, it tries to entice large item shoppers with unusual methods: cargo-bikes and bike trailers may be borrowed for free for up to three hours. And, being an urban store, there’s ample bike parking.

So, full marks for Ikea’s transportation strategy. This bodes well for future plans in Berlin and other urban areas. But does this make Ikea a sustainable corporation?

Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? A store is where consumers buy consumer goods, all produced at a cost to the environment. But there again, things are not so simple.

The corporation has learned a lot from the public relations disasters of the last decade: formaldehyde in its pressed wood panels (such as the infamous Billy), and clear-cut forests in Russia for wood that was labelled sustainable. Ikea now uses third-parties certification for supplies like wood. But where the situation gets interesting comes from the fact that the company sells household gadgets: lamps, appliances, and the like. By adjusting its marketing and pricing, Ikea can entice consumers into buying more sustainable and energy efficient products; this is now a policy spelled out in their latest sustainability report. They even make it simple to buy and install photovoltaic panels.

The neighbourhood where Ikea has plunked itself

The neighbourhood where Ikea has plunked itself

I’m not much of a fan of big box stores, and that includes Ikea. But these developments are pretty positive, and show that a large corporation can move closer to sustainability – doing well by doing good, as they like to say. It’ll be up to us consumers to be vigilant and make sure they deliver on their pledge.

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Written by enviropaul

December 8, 2015 at 12:02 pm

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