The coronavirus has forever transformed many aspects of our lives, not least the way we shop, and if the experience of Swedish furniture giant Ikea is any measure, we are seeing a marked switch to ecommerce that is set to stay long after the pandemic has subsided.

According to Ikea chief digital officer (CDO) Barbara Martin Coppola, the company saw ecommerce surge during lockdowns around the world, but now that stores are re-opening, the switch back to bricks-and-mortar – or rather the giant blue boxes where shoppers traditionally bought their flat-packed furniture – is nowhere near as pronounced.

“We have seen an incredible uptake of ecommerce globally for Ikea, especially as the shops were closed in many, many countries. And it’s been incredible because this uptake, now that the shops are being reopened, the level of ecommerce is actually sustained,” she said, speaking at a talk at online technology conference Collision from Home.

“So it seems that there is a permanent shift towards ecommerce and it’s convenience.”

Shopping habits during the coronavirus

While there has been a boom in ecommerce, what consumers have been purchasing at Ikea has very much reflected the reality they find themselves in.

“It’s interesting because the items purchased by consumers mirror the life that we’re having right now,” said Coppola.

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“Many of us are working from home with kids and homeschooling, and so there’s an increased demand for home office products such as desks. And there is also a lot of home organisation products such as storage solutions and decorations.

“We have also [seen] an increase of children’s IKEA products with everything from children’s furniture, to toys, books, crafts; so very much an expression of our life right now during Covid times.”

Ikea: Riding the ecommerce boom

Ikea isn’t alone in this ecommerce surge: many have witnessed a boom in online shopping as consumers adapt to life in lockdown.

Notably, however, Coppola identified that consumers were not only shopping more online, but were engaging in “really, really quick decision making”.

“It’s been almost like what we used to see and decide in months, it would be done in in a matter of days,” she said.

“It’s been [a] learning [experience] for all of us to go through this period to be honest, as we see the income levels being sustained and fantastic behaviour shifts from consumers overall, globally.”

However, this sudden surge in ecommerce has required considerable efforts by Ikea to adapt effectively.

“It has been really developing incredibly fast, and that demanded operational excellence; it demanded focus in acceleration on the experience that we offer to our consumers,” said Coppola.

“We have actually stopped a lot of activities that we thought were not productive”

Instead, Ikea has focused its attention on areas such as fulfilment, ensuring that it could cater to a wide range of customers with varying needs, including through in-store collection and contactless deliveries.

However, by pivoting the function of its vast network of stores, Ikea has given itself a considerable advantage in this area.

“We have turned the stores into fulfilment centres, and not only for Covid; for after Covid as well,” she said.

“So for those countries that allowed fulfilment from the stores, just bear in mind, the IKEA stores are an hour away maximum from 90% of the people that we serve. So you can see how it’s an incredible advantage.”

Ecommerce and beyond: Ikea and the future of retail

Given this sudden rise in ecommerce, how does Coppola envision the future priorities and realities of retail, both for Ikea and beyond?

Perhaps unsurprisingly given her role as CDO, she argues that online privacy is a top priority – and a key shaper of the commerce experience.

“We are respecting it in the physical world, we are respecting it in the stores: we need to bring the same values to ecommerce and to online,” she said.

“And that changes quite massively the ecommerce experience that you actually offer to people overall. I believe that dialogue in consent in a in a nice way, in an understandable way, without a lot of legal jargon associated with it, is an important consumer experience that we need to get.”

She also sees considerable opportunities in extending the in-store interactivity Ikea offers to consumers to the ecommerce realm, arguing that “online sometimes can feel a little devoid of this humanity”.

“Ikea [has] 76 years of home furnishing knowledge, so feeling that that expertise and that knowledge is there is really, really important,” she says, adding that Ikea is working on a number of solutions to this issue.

“I’ll give you an example: very soon we will give to people digitally the possibility of designing your home in photographic quality 3D from the comfort of your couch in a very simple way. So you take a picture of your interior, and we will be able to swap in and out different furniture that you choose in order to really visualise how it will fit,” she explained.

“All of that is part of new experiences online, and I think it’s really important to continue doing that.”

However, that’s not to say that the in-store experience is dead. Coppola described stores as “incredibly important”, adding that Ikea was continuing with plans to build a number of city-centre stores in Europe to cater to car-less urban residents.

But she did highlight a future where “ecommerce and physical are merging”.

“I like to call it the phigital experience: physical and digital together,” she said.

“I think there’s so much innovation that is coming to the stores to have a seamless experience. It’s really exciting.”

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