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Light vs Dark Wood—a challenge for Ikea in India?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 25-05-2017 Deepti Govind

Bengaluru: “Ikea is based on dilemmas — we want high quality but we want low price,” Juvencio Maetzu, Swedish furniture retailer Ikea’s chief executive officer in India, said on Tuesday. Maetzu was referring just to the low price yet high quality contrast, but what he said could very well apply to another conflicting trend that it will have to deal with in the country.

That trend, brought up for discussion at the firm’s Monday to Wednesday workshop in Bengaluru by Maetzu himself, is the co-existence of the traditional and the contemporary Indian consumer — which extends to everything from food to clothing and furniture to home décor.

While that contrast is not new to India, Ikea will have to figure out how to balance the two based on customer feedback and actual sales after its first store opens at the end of the year, especially in terms of the colour of its furniture.

Furniture typically accounts for 50% of total sales at the average Ikea store. Globally, the company focuses more on pieces that are Scandinavian in appearance and white or blonde in colour. But Indians traditionally favour darker shades of wood and a richer appearance, a fact Ikea executives also brought up at the workshop.

For instance, Indian furniture e-tailer Urban Ladder Home Décor Solutions Pvt. Ltd’s coffee table range on its website includes just one white option. The rest are all in varying shades of dark wood. Their bookshelf range includes a little more white, but as just a panel or two in a large unit that is, again, mostly dark.

“We have some (Indian) designers now and we are partnering with some local institutions,” Maetzu said when asked how the company is going to cater to local tastes in furniture. But the plan is to get as close as possible to the customer, seek feedback and then see whether the company sells more white or dark furniture, he added.

The company does home visits around the world to see how its customers, or potential customers, live and then includes the data it gathers from those visits in its strategy. It has already visited over 500 homes in India and tested various products — including dining tables and cupboards.

Takeaways from these studies will be used in actual product improvements in time for the India store opening, Ikea said on Tuesday. Still, the overarching theme will remain Swedish or Scandinavian because that is what the company is good at, it added.

“We design in Sweden and obviously a huge majority of the range will have the Scandinavian look because that’s what customers come to us for. But in all of our markets, we look and talk directly with our market teams to see what’s locally relevant,” said Karen Hopkinson Pflug, the company’s quality manager.

The flip side, of course, is that the Indian consumer has not yet been exposed to too many pieces of white or blonde furniture.

“My sense is customers would definitely develop a taste for international colours but Ikea will also adapt to Indian tastes. The closest example is if what you wear, which is very personal, can change then furniture can too,” said Anil Kumar, chief executive of consulting firm RedSeer Management Consulting Pvt. Ltd.

There were a lot more colours in terms of clothing in India 8-10 years ago but we have now adapted to international colour palettes, Kumar said, adding that white and blonde furniture hasn’t really been tried out in India in a massive way before.

“The big challenge for Ikea would be an appropriate mix of products and correct pricing — it made huge mistakes when it entered China, and only recovered when it adjusted to the Chinese consumer, rather than expecting the consumer to adapt to Ikea,” said Devangshu Dutta, chief executive of retail consultancy Third Eyesight.

However, Dutta added that he expects Ikea to offer a blend of options in India. He also said the Indian customer will evolve with the infusion of design influences from a variety of domestic and international sources.

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