IKEA Employees Share What They've Learned About Relationships from Watching Yours Fall Apart

The denizens of the big-box store talk about the squabbles they've witnessed and why furniture leads to fights.

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Oct 14 2015, 2:19pm

All illustrations by Michael Dockery

IKEA is where you graduate from street furniture into a more mature version of existence. It's that first non-student share house, or that first baby. It's that patch of life where you're full of zest and design opinions, but haven't necessarily consulted your partner on your vision. That's why IKEA is the place for gender stereotypes to erupt over color swatches and future plans, as petty squabbles are exacerbated by the stress of navigating a rat maze full of low-quality cheese. This combination can bring out the worst in anyone.

For some reflections on watching people embark on a new, shared passage of life, we asked current and former employees of Australian IKEAs for stories. They had a few, as well as some insights on what it's like to work at the world's largest furniture chain.

Alex, worked at a Melbourne store.

I worked in the warehouse out the back, with cardboard boxes and pallets of stuff. One thing when you work with a bunch of 21-year-old uni students is that half of the staff turn up pretty hungover on any given day. The mattresses were stored at the top of the warehouse in piles, so it was quite common to put your coworker on the forklift and drop them off for a nap, especially if it was quiet.

The main thing I learned at IKEA is that nesting was a bigger deal than I ever thought. I wasn't then, and I'm still not, an especially a nesty kind of person. I think people take great comfort and solace in nesting but I think it's a bit lazy. It feels like you are whiplashing at the end of the day in this little cocoon of pure happiness, where you don't let in ideas in that don't comply.

I would get confused as to how this urge made so many normal-ish looking people so vulnerable. I guess they had been walking around for hours. If tension builds for hours of course you're going to argue. The best piece of relationship advice I can give to people at IKEA is go in with a plan. Don't all of a sudden decide you want a cowhide rug. Because how will your vegetarian girlfriend feel about that?

IKEA was a pressure cooker. It was like people supercharged their relationships because they went through all of society's expectations as they walked around. The amount of arguments I saw was silly. And I couldn't believe how people completely fucking separated themselves from the fact that they were in public. Like we can tear each other to shreds at home, that's fine, but let's not get drawn into an argument when 70 people are walking past.

Bruce, works in a Sydney store.

People love their homes. Their homes are this sacred place where they escape and this attitude affects how they act in the store. I work checkouts and people are really reluctant to admit they're wrong. Like they'll have grabbed two boxes of something and one of the boxes is in a different color, so they'll get defensive about it. To me it seems like they're angry because it's for their home—their world—and not your place to mess with.

The biggest fight I ever saw was right after I started. This couple came up to the registers and the guy was kind of smiling and I don't know what had happened, but I get the impression they weren't happy. As they were leaving I saw them yelling at each other. Then she ran back and yelled at me because she thought I'd left her card in the Eftpos terminal. But I hadn't, the transaction wouldn't have gone through if I left the card. I couldn't believe how loud she was and the guy just kept smiling. Then she stormed out and they left their stuff behind. It was full-on.

Generally the guys get angry because they can't assemble things. I had another guy come in once, when I was in customer service, and he had a trolley with thousands of dollars worth of kitchen stuff. He said we've got a huge problem. I didn't order a fucking blue kitchen. So then I realized all his stuff still had their blue protector plastic on them, so I lifted a corner to show him. He just looked at me and said, "I'm so sorry." I felt bad. He'd probably driven all that stuff from an hour away or wherever he lived.

Again, it's just people's homes. People take that stuff seriously, and they're trying to create homes at IKEA. That makes it such a volatile environment.

Steven, worked in a Melbourne store

I worked at IKEA in the early 2000s, at the turn of the century. The main thing I remember, and I don't want to sound like a misogynist, but normally men didn't want to be there. I remember once a guy put up an IKEA shelf and put his wife's wedding china on it. So of course it fell off and then he came back in with all the broken wedding china. He was furious. But he was an interesting mix of being angry with himself, angry with IKEA, and just scared of his wife.

I remember this other guy bringing in a mattress. There is a lifetime return on mattresses and this one had a broken spring so he brought it back covered in everything. No shame! I'm not talking about a little period stain or something like, okay things happen. No, this was full Jackson Polly. We gave the money back and put the mattress in the bin.

The more immature guys used to have fun with the radio intercom. So you would say like, Attention all areas, we have a one-three. And that meant there is a really hot chick in the bedding department and the staff would head that way. The first part of the number was the area, so one was bedding, two was kitchen, and so on. Then the second part of the number was the spectacle. One meant a customer to avoid, two meant a couple was fighting—if anyone wanted to watch—and three meant a cute girl. There was this hilarious guy from Latin America who was like the worst actor in the world. Imagine the Bumblebee Man on his day off kind of thing. He would go out to see the cute girls and pretend to tidy rugs and all this shit.

People are cunts. That's the main thing I learned. People would just blow up over the most insignificant thing. They would come to the store; they had seen something in the catalogue and have their heart set on bookshelf number one, bookcase number two, and accessory number three. But if accessory number three weren't in stock, it would ruin their entire day. It was this kind of petulant, fucking ass-holery. You sit down and you are like, Dude, you are not in the Congo, you have clean drinking water. What is wrong with you?

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