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Knowing your way around is half the fun at new Tampa Ikea

TAMPA — Ikea has lined up a marching band, hundreds of prizes to hand out and a ceremonial log for Mayor Pam Iorio to help saw in half — an old Swedish tradition for good luck. But managers aren't sure how big a crowd to expect when they open the doors at 9 a.m. Wednesday to their first Ikea on Florida's West Coast.

The novelty factor might not be as strong here since Ikea has been 80 miles away in Orlando for almost two years. While Ikea just drew huge crowds to a foul-weather February opening in Charlotte, Florida home furnishing sales have been in the ditch for almost two years.

"With this economy, who knows," said Monica Varela, store manager of what will be the largest of three Ikeas in Florida. The store is geared up to handle more than 20,000 shoppers a day, a bit more than the busiest area Home Depot draws on the busiest Saturdays of the year.

Inside the store at Adamo Drive and 22nd Street, shoppers will find a tempting array of 10,000 goods in a setting designed to erase reasons not to buy.

Stuck with the kids? How about free supervised day care, strollers, bibs, bottle warmers and self-serve baby food, plus interactive play areas throughout and toys for sale?

Too hungry? The bacon and eggs breakfast is 99 cents, there's a modestly priced cafeteria that seats 350, a bistro with 50-cent hot dogs and $1 fat-free frozen yogurt, plus a food market with 150 Swedish dishes and packaged specialties to take home.

Tapped out? The store has everyday deals by the pallet of often cleverly designed textiles, housewares, plants, organizing gear, artwork and home accessories. Lamps are priced down to $4.99, a box of eight wooden hangers is $3.95, pet food dishes are 49 cents. A hammer, wrench and pliers furniture assembly kit is $7.99.

Not ready to lug off ready-to-assemble furniture? Ikea offers assembly, installation, delivery, full-service designers for business/kitchens, and a waiting fleet of rental vans or roof racks to cart stuff off.

They even hang free tape measures, pencils and shopping list papers throughout the store.

It's a far different shopping experience than many bay area residents have seen. The unusual self-service layout and products are why Ikea remains one of the few U.S. retailers to post sales gains — although quite modest — in stores open more than a year.

At 353,000 square feet, the two-floor Tampa store is twice the size of the biggest Home Depot in the Southeast. The average U.S. store sold $97 million of merchandise in 2008, about $10 million more than even the average Wal-Mart Supercenter, which in many ways is Ikea's biggest rival.

Ikea loaded up on all the extra services hoping today's time-stressed shoppers can be coaxed to make a day of it. Shoppers are confronted with a march through a bewildering maze of 49 rooms each decorated right down to the plates and utensils. There are also three small furnished living spaces, the tiniest a 270-square-foot, hotel-room-sized apartment.

Ikea dreamed up creative ways of doing business. Curtains come in two lengths instead of the standard one, and a tape system that makes it easy to adjust them to any size. Kitchen cabinet drawers are self-closing. Unlike with most retailers, mattresses can be returned within 90 days. Pillows are arranged by how you sleep: on the side, back or stomach.

Products are designed by Ikea but made all over the world. Some wood products are made at Ikea's first U.S factory in Danville, Va. The home appliances are made by Whirlpool in Michigan. But the largest sources are China (21 percent) and Poland (17 percent).

To encourage recycling, re-usable shopping bags at checkout cost 49 to 59 cents, but are free during the opening weeks. They are sturdy enough to handle firewood.

The average shopper spends about three hours there. A single lap of the store is a two-third-mile hike (until shoppers discover the shortcuts on store maps).

But there are a few "nos." No Segways or electric wheelchairs in the furniture showroom. No refunds without a receipt and original packaging, but they are offered for 90 days. No consumer electronics or books. In fact, the books in all the bookcases are in Swedish.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Knowing your way around is half the fun at new Tampa Ikea 04/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 19, 2009 6:09am]

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