The Swedish are coming, the Swedish are coming! And so are IKEA’s meatballs!

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IKEA’s finest Swedish meatballs with lingonberry sauce. . .no self-assembly required

THE YEAR IS 1985. It’s early spring. I’m in Chicago for the National Housewares Show [in my pre-retirement role as editor/publisher of the retail industry magazine Chain Store Age] and decide to visit the State Street downtown flagship store of Carson Pirie Scott, perennial maid of honor to the bride of Windy City department store retailing, Marshall Field & Co.

I’m sitting in the office of the chairman and chief executive, Dennis Bookshester, six months earlier the subject of a cover story in Chain Store Age on his efforts to resurrect Carson’s fortunes. He’s a veteran department store executive recently successful as the head of Caldor, a now-defunct upscale discount store chain based in Norwalk, Conn.

I’ve known Dennis for several years so the conversation is casual and friendly, not guarded, not strained as can often be the case when executives talk with the press.

Dennis is outlining a strategy for overtaking Marshall Field based on making home goods a star attraction when suddenly Stewart A. Levine, vice president and general merchandise manager, Home Division, bursts into his office excitedly bearing news that IKEA, already operating in Canada, would be opening its first store in the United States, in Plymouth Meeting, PA, outside Philadelphia, later that year.

The three of us talk about IKEA for several minutes, wondering whether it would conquer America as it had Scandinavia and parts of Europe. Would American consumers opt for no-frills furniture retailing with the type of do-it-yourself assembly that requires several hours of futility and frustration that leaves one vowing never to subject oneself to another such experience in orde to save a few hundred dollars?

Thirty-two years later the answer is a resounding, YES! While knock-off stores, most notably STØR (with its pseudo Scandinavian name), tried to co-opt IKEA’s layout and expansion strategy in the U.S., they lacked IKEA’s systems, vendor relations and financial clout.

I never met the late Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA, (read his obituary here). But I’ve shopped his stores for three decades, buying a TV stand, dresser and wardrobe system, plus assorted kitchen utensils and dishes.

Shopping IKEA is never a quick in-and-out affair. No visit, however, is complete without a stop at its restaurant for Swedish meatballs with Lingonberry sauce.

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