Despite opening in the teeth of a recession that hobbled most of the home furnishings industry, Ikea's first Tampa store did well enough in its initial 18 months that managers are now fine-tuning their approach to the market.
The Tampa-ization of the assemble-it-yourself furniture giant ranges from longer store hours to adding a Cuban sandwich (made, of course, with bread from La Segunda Bakery) to a restaurant menu best known for Swedish meatballs.
"Ikea is all about quality design for the masses at low prices, so we tend to do better in hard times," explained Monica Varela, 48-year-old store manager. "With people staying put because of the housing market (collapse), they are sprucing up where they are. We've also benefited from people furnishing rental apartments and condos" bought as second homes.
Exact sales figures won't be released. But officials confirm the store exceeded expectations its first year (translation: sales topped Ikea's $100 million per store average) and are running ahead of that pace since then. The performance comes despite privately held Ikea, the worlds largest furniture retailer, reporting a "tough year" globally in 2009 and a 1.1 percent decline in same store sales.
Customized tweaking to local market conditions is standard procedure once a retailer thinks the grand opening glitter has settled into a stable sales pattern.
Here are other changes:
• With homes in the Tampa market generally smaller than the national average, Ikea handpicked a standard furnishing package that fits the scale of smaller kitchens, dining and living rooms commonly found in area bungalows and condos. The condo decor is designed to fit room dimensions common in Tampa's Channelside condo canyon. The living room and kitchen set — including TV and stereo wall storage unit, kitchen cabinets and appliances — is priced under $10,000.
• Certain doors (labeled with "shortcut" signs to Ikea regulars) once locked to force shoppers to walk a serpentine maze of both the first and second floor showrooms of the massive store were reopened last week for shoppers who don't have the time. Managers decided so many shoppers had avoided the second floor, they might not know it existed.
• In response to customers who want to make a day of it, Ikea will permanently open an hour earlier after Christmas. New hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. Sundays. Because its restaurant opens a half hour earlier, the store expects to draw more patrons to the 99-cent breakfast at a time closer to when people are used to eating breakfast.
• To ease loading dock congestion where many shoppers discover their buying appetite far exceeded their vehicle capacity, Ikea dropped delivery charges $10 to $69 a truckload within the Tampa Bay area.
• The company, which set a goal last fall of using only renewable sources of electricity to power its 280 stores around the globe, will install solar panels at 150 stores this year. Tampa so far is not on the list. But the store already has a solar hot water system and was built to current LEED standards, the recognized building guidelines for sustainable architectural practices.
After handing out $50 restaurant gift cards to employees as holiday presents last year, workers were stunned when Ikea presented all 12,400 people on its U.S. payroll an unassembled mountain bike this year.
With the unmarked crates hidden on site for two days, only a handful of employees knew.
Varela had to be coy when a thief swiped a staffer's bike that was her means of transportation.
"I urged her not to buy a replacement in case there was a sale price over the weekend," she said. "Fortunately, we gave her a new bike first."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.