DECEMBER 1, 2011
In China, IKEA Is a Swede Place for Senior Romance, Relaxation
Free Coffee, Empty Beds Set Intimate Tone; Retailer Struggles to Police the Unruly
At 62, Tang Yingzhuo, a retired widow looking for love, doesn't think it is appropriate to scope out men at bars, clubs or Karaoke joints. That's why she goes to IKEA.
The former tax-bureau worker is among the throngs of seniors who meet every week at the Swedish retailer's cafeteria in Shanghai's Xuhui shopping district to take a second shot at romance.
Retired and divorced chiropractor Qian Weizhong is also on the prowl. On a recent Tuesday at IKEA Mr. Qian was excited to get the number of a woman he referred to as a "nice lady." He plans to ask her out soon, he said.
While Ms. Tang and the rest of the lonely hearts club flock to the do-it-yourself furniture shop for its clean, homey environment, they pose something of a challenge for IKEA. They sit for hours in the cafeteria, leaving behind orange peels and egg shells they have picked off boiled eggs brought from home. Occasionally, security guards intervene to try to keep order.
At the weekly IKEA romance session in Shanghai, the elderly arrive in swarms of 70 to 700 to get the free coffee offered to holders of the IKEA Family membership card. Zhou Hong, the official IKEA card swiper, says she typically hands out an average of 500 coffee cups each time the group meets.
Ms. Tang, seated amid the backdrop of Poang reading chairs and Vreta poufs, sips coffee and says she is grateful to have such a meeting place. "I make more senior citizen friends when I come here," said Ms. Tang. "There's more to offer than meeting a boyfriend at IKEA."
In China, IKEA is planning to up its nine locations to 17 stores by 2015 to meet demand from the nation's growing middle class, who aspire to Western lifestyles at affordable prices. But some are still in the gawk-phase. They come out of sheer curiosity, or to behold the vast spaces bursting with thousands of gadgets and creature comforts.
As culture and commerce intersect, some unusual behavior has emerged. And older folks aren't the only troublemakers. Young people, often with kids in tow, plop on chairs to watch videos on their smartphones. People aren't shy about kicking off their shoes and tucking into display beds for a nap.
On a recent Sunday in Beijing, Liu Yunfeng sat in a 3,999 yuan ($625) white leather Tirup chair, watching home videos from the screen of her Sony digital camera while her shoeless daughter jumped on the Nyvoll bed of a mock-up room.
"She loves all the different rooms they have," said Ms. Liu, sitting near a man who had dozed off on another bed.
IKEA isn't alone. Other big chains, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and McDonald's Corp., are accustomed to Chinese consumers spending lots of quality time—if not serious money—at their often huge, comfortable stores.
Policing the freeloaders and the unruly isn't so easy. Attempting to tell a rowdy crowd of seniors to lower their voices recently, 24-year-old security guard Li Ya says he encountered resistance. An older man who didn't enjoy being hushed by someone 40 years his junior, says Mr. Li, once splashed scalding coffee on him. "They always argue that they have the right to do what they want here," says Mr. Li.
Earlier this year, after a spate of altercations—and realizing that the seniors were taking seats away from paying customers—managers of the Shanghai IKEA outlet decided to take action.
To keep order, they bolstered security, assigning six guards to the cafeteria on Tuesdays and Thursdays in addition to the usual two posted there on other days.
They created a special roped off zone for sitting, allowing more tables to be open for shoppers who wanted warm tilapia, not hot dates.
They also propped up a notice board at the entrance of the cafeteria, pleading with the group to disband. "IKEA would hereby like to inform this group and its organizers: Your behavior is affecting the normal operations of the IKEA cafeteria," the notice said.
It went on: "Frequent fights and arguments do serious harm to the image both of Shanghai residents and IKEA. Bringing in outside food and tea violates the cafeteria's regulations…If you are a member of this group, we feel we have warned you, do not use the resources of IKEA to organize events of this kind."
Spokeswoman Yin Lifang said IKEA is attempting to find the group's organizers so that it can negotiate with them. Members of the group deny there are organizers.
With people of all ages using big-box stores as their personal playgrounds, a new term has emerged: "retailtainment."
A blend of the words retail and entertainment, it is now frequently used by companies and strategists.
Several years ago, some Wal-Mart stores in China set up a children's camp for summer and winter school breaks. During daily sessions, children are encouraged to try their hands as part-time greeters and announce deals over the broadcast system.
Whether that is enough to convert the campers into consumers is another matter. "If I go to Wal-Mart I'll want to go for the day," said Cui Hongyan. "I can buy my goods somewhere else much more quickly."
McDonald's, with its free Wi-Fi and clean bathrooms, is adding more electrical outlets to most of its China stores in hopes that people will actually come and hang around longer.
In Hong Kong, the fast food giant is developing a service known as "McWedding" to encourage people to marry in their stores. One proposed feature of the ceremony: When it is time for the big kiss, the bride and groom can each chomp on the end of a french fry until their lips meet.
Meanwhile IKEA, known for its Swedish meatballs, has no plans to allow nuptials in its cafeterias.—Yang Jie contributed to this article.
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