Looking back at a decade of IKEA

FROM flatpack furniture to meatballs and little plastic containers you never realised you really needed, to assorted cushions, ethnic inspired rugs and duvet covers with unpronounceable names, it all adds up to just one little four letter word.

Before Ikea descended on Straiton ten years ago next month, getting our hands on vital essentials such as the famed Billy bookcase – a bestseller around the globe – a three piece kitchen utensil set for a mere 59p or a plate of those Swedish meatballs, meant a tiresome drive down the A1 in the direction of Gateshead and a journey home with the back of the car stuffed with iconic blue and yellow plastic carrier bags and the kids strapped to the roof rack.

Now a decade since that first Scottish store threw open its doors, and there can barely be a husband in the area who hasn't endured a Sunday afternoon of being hauled along its aisles followed by an evening of swearing and sweating over flatpack hell.

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Next time they're confronted with assorted spare bits left over from the construction of an Aneboda chest of drawers, they may draw comfort from cursing the name of the man at least partly to blame for it all: Rob Rogers, the boss at the helm of Ikea's Straiton store since that opening day a decade ago.

For he's Lothian's lord of the flatpack, the meatball maestro who's overseen the sale of a whopping 21,972,500 helpings of the popular dish since November 1999 – never mind the 2.2 million hot dogs guzzled by shoppers – and who, it turns out, actually does take his work home with him.

"Yes," he nods, "my house is furnished thanks to Ikea, so I know exactly what it's like to put together flatpack furniture.

"It's all about how you approach it," he advises. "Some of us unpack it and lay it out carefully and check all the pieces and read the instructions. And some take the pieces out of the box and try to build as they go. They are the ones who get to the end and realise they've still got bits rattling around the box that should have gone on first.

"You need to follow the process," he says. "But once you've built an Ikea piece once, you generally get the hang of it pretty quickly for the next time."

If you don't, Rob is quick to point out that Ikea now offers a 'build it for you' service, instantly eliminating the raised blood pressure, the full-on family arguments and the kitchen drawer full of those 'extra' bits that should have been used in construction but somehow weren't.

Today there's no mistaking the impact the Swedish furnishing giant has had on Lothian shoppers – 2.5 million shoppers a year, more than double the number who visit Edinburgh Castle.

Ten years of flatpacks and meatballs makes store a firm favourite in Capital

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Indeed, since Ikea Edinburgh opened, around 30 million have passed through its doors, 17 million of them going on to part with hard earned cash at the tills.

Yet flashback to 1997 and the first hints that Ikea might be considering locating one of two Scottish stores in the Edinburgh area, and shoppers' glee at an end to that journey south was overtaken by an angry feud between planners which resulted in a nail-biting race against Glasgow rivals to secure the store.

"We had actually purchased land in Glasgow a year before we opened here in Edinburgh," recalls Rob, a 55-year-old father of two drafted in from an Ikea store in Chicago to launch the Lothian shop. "There were various planning issues in Glasgow and we were never able to start construction on the site we had. But the intention from Ikea was always to open first in Glasgow which was the bigger of the two markets."

As it turned out, things didn't go entirely smoothly at Straiton either. In what was seen as 'sour grapes' over the store's decision to reject an Edinburgh City Council site at Newbridge in favour of locating its 20m development on a site just within Midlothian Council control, there followed a series of delaying discussions and threats of objections from Edinburgh planners.

While they squabbled, Ikea lost patience and sent out warning signals that they'd simply scrap their plans altogether.

Rob recalls: "We knew that tens of thousands of customers were travelling to our stores at Gateshead and Warrington every week and we wanted to get stores open in Scotland much earlier than we did. It was Midlothian Council that enabled us to open as soon as we did – nothing to do with Edinburgh," Rob poignantly points out, adding: "It's a touchy issue."

The store finally threw open its doors on November 4, 1999, after first warning shoppers not to bother coming.

"It was an unusual marketing campaign," laughs Rob, who joined Ikea 27 years ago from rivals Habitat. "We spent 600,000 telling people 'Please, don't come'. We put up webcams on the car park so people could see how crazy the traffic was.

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"The bypass was especially busy – the longest queue stretched for one and a half miles, but people were still determined to get here from all across Scotland."

It would be a further two years before Ikea finally opened its second Scottish store in Glasgow. But, insists Rob, the Straiton store with its 462 staff, is still as busy as ever.

"People still come from across Scotland, something like 14 per cent of our business is people coming from the Dundee area," he reveals. "We have actually put in place mobile teams who will travel to places like Aberdeen and Inverness to plan and organise customers' kitchens.

"And we're still selling a lot of the items that we sold back then. I looked at the catalogue from back then recently and something like 60 per cent of the products from then are still on sale and still look great."

He came to Lothian after heading up shops in Canada and North America, arriving at the Straiton site with his wife Karen and two young children to find a scrap of barren land – a far cry from the bustling retail hub it is now.

Since then, Ikea Edinburgh has sold some 284,580 of the iconic Billy bookcases and 54,600 Poang armchairs. And no fewer than 14,040 Klippan sofas now grace Scots' homes thanks to the store.

In the future, there are plans to expand what is the smallest Ikea in the UK, perhaps stretching the current restaurant area over the current self service warehouse and further developing external sales teams able to travel to customers' homes to plan and organise their home improvement projects.

He's had ten years' of living, working and breathing Scandinavian style in Lothian . . . does it ever become too much for the man who brought flatpack and meatballs to the area?

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"I love the buzz of the business," Rob grins. "Every day is the same, but every day is different. We have around 2.5m customers a year – some weeks we have 25,000 customers.

"It's definitely never boring!"

From Monday, November 2, until Saturday, 7 November, Ikea Edinburgh is hosting a series of special 10th anniversary events throughout the store including party activities, competitions, children's entertainment and special offers. For more information go to www.ikea.co.uk/edinburgh