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Ikea will annoy you for $5

five dollar billNo, that’s not their latest marketing campaign. It’s something that over the weekend I learned is Ikea’s company policy. Now maybe it’s not fair for me to single out Ikea, because maybe any retail store would act the same way under the circumstances, but I don’t think I would run a business this way. If you have a few minutes, sit back and I’ll tell you a customer dissatisfaction story.

I have four kids and my daughters have the “good” bedrooms, because they don’t have to share the way their two brothers do. But their rooms are small—my youngest daughter is in a 10’x9′ room with a tiny closet. So she asked (nicely) if she could get a loft bed with a desk under it. I was hesitant until I saw that some of them are made of metal and don’t cost $1000. We went to several stores, finally ending up at Ikea.
I had only been in an Ikea once before and I found it a bit strange. For the uninitiated, they have a path that you follow to walk through the store, so you have to look at everything they sell even if you just came in to buy something specific. (Yeah, I know they have shortcuts that let you knock some time off your walk, but it’s still kind of weird to me.)
Ikea also sports a big sign when you walk in that explains how to shop there. Maybe it’s my user experience background, but that seems like a red flag to me that you’re doing something wrong. Like my granny used to say about a joke, “If you have to explain it, it’s no good.”
But I could overlook all of that quite easily if my daughter found some inexpensive furniture that she liked. In addition to the loft bed and desk, she needed to compensate for the woeful lack of closet space with an armoire or a wardrobe (or some other fancy name for a closet you buy from the furniture store). She’s turning 13, so I know from the experience with her older sister that clothes will soon begin to multiply.
So, Ikea isn’t my favorite store, but I told my daughter that “I will love Ikea if they have the furniture you like and it fits into our budget.” They did. We picked out the desk/bed and the wardrobe and then went through the rigmarole of finding the warehouse and locating each bin for the myriad pieces we needed to lug onto the carts and push to the registers. Then we endured the self-checkout where we had to move around these immensely heavy boxes to scan them. It was a chore, but I told myself that we were at least saving money. (I do think I need to factor the subsequent chiropractor bills into our savings.)
Then we pushed two heavy flatbed carts out to the car and loaded up. While loading up, we discovered that we had two bags, not three, of the set of hinges for the armoire doors. We knew we had picked out three from the bin and we had grabbed one bag and scanned it three times (it said so on the receipt), but we could only find two bags. One of them must have dropped off the cart somewhere.
So, silly me, I went back to the service desk to let them know of my mistake, expecting they’d let me pick up a third $5 bag of hinges. But the person at the service desk was unmoved by our plight. She dutifully inspected the receipt and called security to see if anyone had turned in a bag of hinges from outside the store. I tried to explain that we had no idea whether the bag had fallen off after we left the store or while we were inside the store.
She became quite interested in this fact, saying that she needed to know whether it had fallen in the store or outside. I couldn’t figure out why. I explained that we only have two bags and we paid for three, so it doesn’t really matter where it fell.
She said that it did matter a great deal, because she has no way of knowing how many bags we had. She first suggested that we bring in the two bags to prove we didn’t have three already (it was hard for my daughter to keep a straight face at this point), but eventually realized that wouldn’t prove a whole lot. I offered to her to come out and look at my car so that she could see we have only two bags, but she told me that was impossible. She further went on to say that because I used self-checkout, there was no way to verify what I had bought. (So, because I saved Ikea money by using self-checkout, then I get tagged for the errors. Sweet.)
I was getting frustrated at this point and said, “Look, we just spent $739 in your store, so why would I be wasting my time trying to get a $5 bag of hinges?” She replied that “Ikea doesn’t care how much you spend.” (I think that would be news to Ikea’s management.)
At this point, I thought it would be a good time to talk to her manager, but I realized that I was just getting upset and would be wasting even more time over $5, and it wasn’t worth it to me. But I decided to tell our erstwhile customer service person one more thing: “I just want you to know that it’s really stupid to annoy a customer that just spent $739 over a $5 bag of hinges.” And she then said to me, “It’s OK that you are mad.”
At this point I was flummoxed. It wouldn’t be OK with me if my customer was mad over $5, but she thinks it’s perfectly fine because she has obviously been trained that it is more important to follow procedures than to use her common sense. See, I know it is possible that I come from a long line of hinge thieves who cleverly cover their crimes by purchasing hundreds of dollars of other items, but I suspect that there are more likely scenarios.
Like maybe I lost this one bag of hinges.
But I gave up at that point and trooped back to the bin in search of another bag. They were all out, which seemed like the capper to the whole story, at least until we got home and unloaded the car. Would you believe it? The third bag of hinges had been there all along, but we’d missed it when we were loading the car.
So, Ikea had annoyed me over nothing. They left me with an enduring memory of their mistrust for me and it wouldn’t have cost them a dime. Because any company that had believed me and given me the $5 bag of hinges would have seen me race back to the store and return it when I found the original bag. If they had trusted me, I would have repaid that trust and I would have had an extremely powerful feeling of loyalty. It’s just $5, so it’s irrational, but I know myself.
But instead, Ikea has annoyed me for the sake of $5. So my first impression of Ikea is that they don’t trust their customers and they don’t lift finger one to make things easier when something goes wrong. They are more attached to their procedures than their relationships.
So, ask yourself what would have happened in your business in this situation. If a new customer that you did not know needed to be cut some slack, would your employees do that? Or do you have procedures against that? Would employees be rewarded for making the customer happy or punished for letting a customer “put one over” on them?
You need to ask yourself what’s more important to you and make sure your employees know what you want. Otherwise they might be told that you don’t care how much they spend and that it’s OK that they are mad.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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