To psyche up 400 new employees during a team-building exercise at Tampa's first Ikea, a group of employees launched into a cheer Tuesday sung to the theme of SpongeBob SquarePants.
With apologies to the cartoon character, the group called the "Swedish Fish" erupted on cue, saluting its gummi candy namesake that is sold near the registers.
"Who comes from Sweden and lives in the sea?
"Who is chewy and gooey and sticks to your teeth?
"If something sweet is what you wish,
"Grab a bag and chomp on a delicious fish.
"Swedish Fish! Swedish Fish! Swedish Fish!"
It was all part of a spirited exercise Tuesday as the new Ikea workers — dressed for the first time in screaming yellow Ikea shirts — were run through an unusual training program to oversee the chain's 37th store in the United States.
Located on 22nd Street at Adamo Drive, the store may be on the edge of Ybor City, Tampa's Latin quarter, but the training ensures this will be a small patch of Sweden — inside and out.
Decked out in colors from the Swedish flag, the store, which opens May 6, celebrates its home country. Many products are named for Scandinavian towns. The cafeteria specialties are Swedish meatballs and lingonberry jam. The customer experience is a model of Swedish practicality, sleek design and efficiency.
But on the other side of the register, employees have been schooled in Swedish culture and customs that shaped the history and expectations of their employer, the world's largest furniture maker, which has grown in five years from revenue of $8.1 billion to $27.9 billion spread over 36 countries.
"We work hard and we have fun, but we want to be sure employees understand our values and heritage as well as all aspects of the business," said store manager Monica Varela, who started training hand-picked managers five months ago and the rank and file three weeks ago. "We want them to know all departments, so they don't necessarily settle into one job."
It's quite European. The worker break rooms dish out only Swedish coffee. The back halls are decorated with motivational Swedish sayings. Pay starts above minimum wage, but employees are guaranteed a full meal each shift for $3, plus full medical and dental benefits all the way down to 19-hour-a-week part-timers.
The company flew new department managers off to work in other Ikeas in Arizona, Massachusetts and Virginia a week at a time. Experts were flown in to dish out product information and how-to knowledge.
The staff will be augmented with 75 "imports" from other stores for mentoring the first month. During the past month, hourly workers assembled all the furniture, graphics and extensive displays that change seasonally.
But over that period they also were peppered with presentations in "Swedishness" in enough hourlong sessions to equal a full day, plus other sessions on company rituals, products and strategies.
Much of it was Ikea-speak: "open wallet areas" (spots filled with value-priced goods under $20) that tempt shoppers to fill up the free yellow shoulder bags passed out at the door. That's not to be confused with the BTIs — "breathtaking items," typically housewares priced at $5 or less to prod them to swap the bags for a shopping cart. For the final swing, customers are led to grab multiwheel dollies to fill with ready-to-assemble furniture that comes flat-packed and weighs less than 50 pounds apiece.
Just before the registers, Ikea stacks high HBI — Ikea's historical bestselling items — for a fresh audience in Tampa: Billy Bookcases, Poang chairs and Lack side tables.
But the company preaches throughout the experience the personal virtues of self-sufficiency: enthusiasm, togetherness, humility, willpower, leadership, diversity and family first.
Never known for training workers except on the job and on what they sell, retailers on average dedicate about seven hours training new hires. Ikea spends about 10 times that at new stores. Plus there is a full-day refresher course after one year and week-long advanced retreats after the second and third years.
To be sure, workers are battle-ready for grand opening mobs, as the Tampa hourly workers worked at stores in Orlando on busy weekends.
"About the only retailer that goes this far in training is Nordstrom," said Bart Weitz, director of the retailing programs at the University of Florida. "And it's reflected in Ikea's turnover rate."
Ikea turns over less than 30 percent of its payroll annually in an industry where 100 percent or more is common.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.