A few days ago I commented on a Guardian article about Ikea in which I focused on the strength of their vision. Today I wanted to revisit that article because it brings up an interesting issue: what is the right balance between following your vision and getting feedback from customers?
The Mållen clip doesn't look like much, and yet it represents, in microcosm, a vital Ikea strategy: the way the company decides what you need before you've even realised you might need it. The clip, Vinka explains, is for hanging up magazines in your bathroom: you attach a magazine to the metal clip, then hang the rubber ring over a towel hook. It had never occurred to you, presumably, that you might want to hang up magazines in your bathroom. But Ikea had already decided that you would. And the brilliant but scary part is this: once you've seen a row of magazines hanging up in one of Ikea's showroom bathrooms, each neatly suspended at 45 degrees from a Mållen clip, it takes a will of steel not to find the magazines in your own bathroom, now you come to think of it, almost offensively disorganised. And so you think about purchasing the Mållen clip. At which point another Ikea sales tactic kicks in: the clips only cost 90p for three - so cheap that it's hardly worth not buying them, just in case, especially if you've travelled a long way to get to the store.
You did not, in other words, come into the store with a need that you wanted to satisfy: you came in, and then you got both your need and the means of satisfying it handed to you simultaneously. You came looking for a sofa, say, but you came out with a sofa and a trolleyfull of impulse buys. Theodor Adorno, the eminent German social theorist, called this "retroactive need" - and it was, he argued, a key means by which capitalism perpetuated itself, while shoring up the illusion that what was being offered was individualised choice. Because it so often decides what you're going to need in advance, Ikea does much less market research than many companies, and some strange things have happened as a result. Shortly after the company opened its first north American outlet, in Vancouver in 1976, employees noticed that an inexplicably large number of vases were being sold - so many that they could barely keep up the supply. Eventually they deigned to ask their customers why; it turned out that they found Ikea's European-style glasses too small to drink from.
This brings up the concept of co-creating value with customers. There's a wonderful balance that can happen when a company has a brilliant vision, yet is no so arrogant to believe that they have nothing to learn from their customers. When companies take the time to understand their customers and get feedback, they have an opportunity to make course corrections... much like a rocketship headed to the moon must make minute course corrections to ensure that it reaches its target.