- IKEA US employees say that the furniture chain’s pivot to become more customer-centric isn’t working out.
- The international furniture retailer’s US-based stores all underwent a restructuring known as O4G – or “organising for growth” – in 2017.
- But employees report that the overhaul has led to long lines, disillusioned workers, and frustrated shoppers.
- “Organisations like ours are in constant change as we’re on a mission of creating a better every day for the many people, and that is a journey we will always be on,” an IKEA US spokesperson told Business Insider.
When IKEA restructured its 48 US-based stores in 2017, there were a few big ideas behind the overhaul.
The move was touted as an opportunity to break down silos within the department-centric stores, boost online-fulfillment capabilities, and, perhaps most importantly, take steps to better meet customers’ needs.
The overhaul – known as “organising for growth” or O4G – even set up a role specifically assigned to seeking out and assisting shoppers: the active seller.
“In 2016, IKEA Retail U.S. initiated an organizational change process with a mind-set of continuous improvement over time,” an IKEA US spokesperson told Business Insider. “During the last two years, we have made adjustments to the organisation based on coworker input and have worked together with them to establish ways of working and processes.”
For one IKEA active seller, however, ticked-off shoppers aren’t an uncommon sight in the wake of O4G.
“I get yelled at at least once a day because a customer couldn’t find an employee and I’m the only person in that department,” the employee told Business Insider. “It’s like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m with 12 other customers.'”
The employee said that while customers would struggle to find available employees before O4G, understaffing in their store and divisions created by the restructuring have exacerbated matters.
“As O4G has progressed and our hours have been cut, I don’t think that customers are really having their needs met,” the employee said. “You can’t help all the customers when you’re the one person in a department – especially one that’s taking up a third of the store sales.”
Business Insider spoke to seven current IKEA employees – whom IKEA calls “coworkers” – across four states, all of whom asked to be kept anonymous for fear of retribution. Business Insider also spoke to four former employees about their experiences working for the retailer.
Six of the seven current employees said that the customer experience at their stores has either not improved or worsened since O4G was rolled out, citing issues like unmotivated and overburdened employees, understaffing, and long lines.
“Our coworkers’ input is important to us, so we always take any concerns raised seriously,” the IKEA US spokesperson told Business Insider in the company’s statement. “Organisations like ours are in constant change as we’re on a mission of creating a better every day for the many people, and that is a journey we will always be on.”
The spokesperson added that IKEA was “constantly looking to improve the experience of our coworkers and based on their needs and feedback we are planning for some immediate actions, as they are the key to our success. As we make changes, our coworkers will always be the first to know.”
Employees say the changes have shifted store silos rather than eliminated them
The IKEA active seller who said they were accustomed to annoyed shoppers went on to say that O4G inadvertently created distinct divisions within the store’s workforce.
Since active sellers are specifically dedicated to interacting with shoppers, the employee said that they often encounter merchandising basics employees who are unwilling to assist customers. Under the new system, merchandising basics employees are responsible for all backend work. They also missed out on the pay bump active sellers received with the restructuring.
“Because we’ve made these roles so clearly defined, nobody is willing to help,” the employee said. “So even if there’s a merch basics person in the department, a lot of them won’t help customers because it’s no longer their job.”
But the IKEA employee said that they didn’t blame their merchandising basics colleagues for not pitching in more.
“You’re either doing the right thing for the customer or you’re doing the right thing for you,” the employee said. “Those things no longer overlap.”
Former IKEA employee Devin Johnson, who worked for the company for five years before quitting in October, told Business Insider about a similar experience in his store. He worked in the product-quality department, which deals with returns and damaged items. He said that the higher-ticket departments in his store were typically well-staffed, but that the store’s warehouse suffered from a lack of available employees.
“There are times when people were coming all the way over to my department asking for help because they couldn’t find anybody,” Johnson said. “You’d go over and find someone from merch basics working over there and they’d flat out say, ‘I can’t do that.'”
He said the experience was always frustrating for both the shopper and the employees.
“It was frustrating because there was nothing I could really do it about it either,” he said.
A different employee, who is not an active seller, told Business Insider that they were also often stopped by customers in need of assistance. They said the interruptions hurt their productivity.
Customers would get stuck in lines stretching ‘from the cash registers to the warehouse’
Six out of the seven IKEA employees also cited long lines as an issue affecting customers. One employee said that lines stretching “from the cash registers to the warehouse” frequently forced merchandising basics coworkers to drop their work and head over to help the cashiers.
Former IKEA employee Brendan Minton, who worked for the retailer from 2015 until he was let go in 2018, told Business Insider that he felt that the customer service at his store had markedly declined because of O4G and his store’s increased turnover rate.
Minton said that lines were getting so bad that it even affected active sellers working “upstairs” in lucrative departments like kitchens. Departments located “upstairs” in the store’s showroom, including the kitchen, dining, sofas, and bedrooms categories, feature a number of high-selling products.
“When they started making active sellers go to cash lanes, the people upstairs were kind of safe from that,” he said. “But it got to a point that they started pulling from kitchens, bedrooms, anything upstairs.”
Employees are feeling less knowledgeable and more stressed
But the feeling isn’t universal. One employee said that the creation of the active-seller role had boosted the shopping experience at their store.
“The customers have actually probably seen more employees on the floor,” one employee sad. “Every issue that they have had has been seen to by somebody.”
Former employees also pointed to a few less concrete changes dampening customers’ interactions with store workers. Former IKEA self-serve employee Charlie Crow, who worked for IKEA from 2012 to 2018, said that he was sceptical about the overhaul’s apparent attempt to transform coworkers into generalists rather than specialists with a specific wealth of knowledge about a particular department.
“They’re trying to create this abstract future where no one is a specialist anymore,” Crow told Business Insider. “And part of me says, ‘Man if you can do that, good on you. Because you’d be the only retailer in the world that has a group of coworkers with that vast of a knowledge base.'”
“Before, coworkers knew everything there could possibly be about their role and their department,” a current employee said. “If the customer had questions, they would have all the answers.”
Employees have speculated that some of the changes brought about by O4G could roll out elsewhere. Business Insider reviewed a video announcement from IKEA US President Lars Petersson about the global transformation of the Ingka Group, IKEA’s parent company, on November 21.
“IKEA US started our transformation journey a year ago with O4G. Since the start of O4G we have said that this would be a continuous improvement process,” he said in the video. “After looking at our progress and listening to you, we believe that there are many things that we can do to take the learnings from O4G and together, improve the way we lead, we work, and we organise in the US.”
Petersson went on to talk about the Ingka Group’s plans to “simplify and strengthen the way we lead, work, and organise throughout our businesses to enable a greater focus on adding value to our customers.”
“The Ingka Group transformation that was announced globally last week is separate from the organizational changes that were implemented in the U.S. last year,” an IKEA US spokesperson told Business Insider in a statement on Wednesday. “The majority of changes will be in our global offices, country head offices and other support units.”
But in the US, current and former employees agreed that store workers are increasingly disillusioned by the changes being brought about by O4G. One former shopkeeper who quit in 2017 as O4G was being rolled out said their mother recently visited an IKEA store and was struck by the drop in product availability and employee responsiveness.
“I see that as a product of miserable staff,” the ex-shopkeeper said. “You have people who are no longer inspired and motivated.”
Here is the complete statement from IKEA US:
Our coworkers input is important to us, so we always take any concerns raised seriously. In 2016, IKEA Retail U.S. initiated an organizational change process with a mind-set of continuous improvement over time. During the last two years, we have made adjustments to the organisation based on coworker input and have worked together with them to establish ways of working and processes. Organisations like ours are in constant change as we’re on a mission of creating a better every day for the many people, and that is a journey we will always be on. We are constantly looking to improve the experience of our coworkers and based on their needs and feedback we are planning for some immediate actions, as they are the key to our success. As we make changes, our coworkers will always be the first to know.
The Ingka Group transformation that was announced globally last week is separate from the organizational changes that were implemented in the U.S. last year. Across all the countries we operate, we will together with our coworkers, strengthen our position for the future and simplify the way we lead, work and organise and put even greater focus on the roles that add value to our customers. The majority of changes will be in our global offices, country head offices and other support units. You can learn more about the global transformation of IKEA here.
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