This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
IKEA employs almost 200,000 people worldwide, sells a Billy Bookcase every five seconds, boasts an annual turnover roughly as high as the GDP of Ghana, and the circulation of the IKEA catalogue is similar to that of the Bible. There's even an IKEA musical, because why not.
I wanted to find out what goes on behind those numbers, so I spoke with Hannah, who – for the past eight years – has worked at various IKEA branches across Germany. The 30-year-old told me that if the company offered more flexible working hours she could see herself staying there for the rest of her career. However, she obviously can't do that if she gets fired, so before revealing whether customers actually have sex in the display beds, what the worst IKEA product is and why IKEA stores are great at ending relationships, I agreed to use the pseudonym "Hannah".
VICE: Do you know how to pronounce the Swedish product names or do you just guess?
Hannah: We get product trainings, but mostly we just guess. We used to sell a children's bed with a name that was very rude in German – Gudvik sounds like "good fuck" when you pronounce it the German way. Or the loo brush Viren, which is German for "viruses". We often laugh and wonder how the company can be so adamant about sticking to the Swedish names.
Do customers have sex in the display beds?
Yes, but there are stories of it happening across every department. The beds are displayed with lots of duvets and blankets, so it's easy to build a sort of bed-cave. Supposedly there are even people who've had sex in wardrobes. Couples also regularly get frisky in the aisles of the big self-serve area, right before you get to the checkout. Luckily I've never caught anyone in the act. But hats off to the people doing it in wardrobes – that's quite a feat.
What are the most disgusting things customers do at IKEA?
There's a reason why IKEA started putting acrylic glass over the display toilets, with directions to the nearest customer loos. Children – and even adults – just keep using these non-functioning toilets.
Also, I once witnessed a customer inhale five hot dogs in a row and puke them out again. He proceeded to slip and fall in his own vomit, before making a fuss and demanding we pay him damages, seeing as IKEA had failed to keep the floors clean. But we'd seen the whole thing go down, and had the CCTV footage, so he didn't have a leg to stand on.
Can you confirm the cliché that a trip to IKEA is enough to ruin a relationship?
Yes. If you're in a happy relationship, I definitely don't recommend shopping at IKEA together. It usually goes something like this: the man is already fed up before they've even reached the first escalator, while the woman wants to explore everything – and IKEA only makes it worse by deliberately causing sensory overload, so shopping there becomes almost intoxicating.
The worst fight I've ever witnessed occurred when a couple wanted to buy a wardrobe system. The guy had already made a plan and wanted to get going, but the woman wanted more time to decide on the exact features. The planner tool for wardrobes is the worst, and on that day it crashed, as it's prone to do. It ended with the guy flinging their printouts all over the place, saying, "Just do what you want!" and marching out. The woman screamed after him and broke down crying.
Which IKEA product is basically rubbish?
Lack is a popular table that only costs £5. But if you set down a glass a bit too hard on it, it'll make a dent. We often get people coming in and asking for a refund on that table, and of course we give them one without argument. But it's just fibreboard and some plastic foil, so people should probably just spend a bit more if they expect a quality table.
How closely do you really monitor the self-service checkouts?
IKEA is well aware that checkouts like that are practically asking for thieves. The checkout staff are well-trained to prevent theft – they perform spot checks, and of course there are the cameras everywhere. If you wanted to steal something without getting caught, your best bet would be to create some sort of a distraction. Like striking up a conversation with nearby staff while scanning your products, and then sneaking something past them. Some customers also regularly try to hide things in other products, like inside a planter or under a plant. We're really strict when we do catch thieves; we'll detain the person and call the police.
What if you take the price tags from a cheap product and stick them on an expensive one? Is that easier to get away with?
That's a classic strategy. You'd have to at least make sure that the new tag isn't smaller than the one you're covering up, or else someone's bound to notice. Expensive products often have a laser price tag burned into the carton, so you can't really do it with those.
One customer stuck a Lack tag on a flat pack containing a Bestå product. Now, Bestå stuff can cost more than £400, while the most expensive things from Lack are about £50. This customer wasn't the brightest bulb, though, seeing as he took his flat pack to a staffed checkout. The cashier saw through him right away, and the guy turned red as a poppy and ran off. By the way, if you stick different labels on stuff instead of just stealing it, it actually counts as fraud rather than shoplifting.
Are there people who abuse the Småland play area as a free day-care?
Parents are usually no more than an hour late for pick-up. The maximum time allowed per child is actually two hours, and then we'll call the parents if they haven't shown up. If you're at an IKEA in a shopping centre, you can be sure they the parents are not actually at IKEA. We give those parents an earful when they show up.
But leaving a child with us all day isn't actually possible; employees would call the police for safety reasons. Småland is for ages three and up, and parents often lie to drop off kids who are younger than that, but we ask the children themselves how old they are. Kids that young don't lie.
Which customers are the worst?
People who are just naturally angry and irritable – once they get going, there's no calming them down. Then there's the IT/banker types, as I call them. They show up in a suit and act superior. Plus they'll ask us where to find things by telling us the item number. Like, how am I supposed to know what you're talking about? We have more than 8,000 products. Then there are customers who abuse IKEA's return policy. They want to get a new dining room rug whenever there's a stain.
The grossest thing are customers who come to return these disgusting mattresses, full of urine and blood stains and god knows what else. They expect us to just take them back with our ungloved hands. When you ask them what was wrong with the mattress, they'll say, "Oh, I don't know, it just wasn't comfortable." IKEA's relaxed return policy can be a bit annoying for staff, but there's no point in wasting your time arguing.
How do you feel about people who go to IKEA just to eat?
I don't see anything wrong with that. It's not like the food is bad, or anything. What I do think is really funny are the pensioners who stand outside in the mornings, scraping at the door with their walkers and canes. They rush to the restaurant to claim their regular breakfast spots. The first time I had to unlock the doors in the morning I didn't know where the lock was, so I had 20 people knocking on the glass and pointing me in the right direction.
It's terribly annoying when people buy their hot dogs before shopping, though. They'll stand there talking to you with fried onions raining all over the place, sauce dripping on the floor and awful hot dog breath. I wish they'd just save it for when they're done shopping.