Friday, April 30, 2010

Should You Shop at IKEA?

Ikea has a lot of cheap furniture, which is great
...if you want cheap furniture.

Over the years I have purchased a number of items at IKEA, the iconic Swedish furnishings store. Do you need or want a bookshelf named Bjorn? The answer is generally "NO", unless special circumstances dictate. The following is based on my experiences with buying and using IKEA products.

I have bought a number of items over the years from IKEA, everything from furniture, to an entire kitchen, cabinets and all, to a bed, to lamps, and sheets, and accessories, and yes, even their Swedish meatballs in the cafeteria.

Tellingly, I own little or none of this furniture anymore. Most of it broke or was thrown out years ago. IKEA, as I have joked in the past, is a Swedish word meaning "sawdust held together with spit". And while I say this in jest, it is essentially true.

Now before you go accusing me of picking on Swedes, let me state that there are a lot of IKEA-like stores and catalogs out there, which sell similarly constructed furniture. Ballard Designs sells differently styled furniture that is also made of sawdust and assembled with barrel nuts and those little Allen wrenches. It is IKEA in drag, basically.

Regardless of source, these types of furnishings have the same characteristics: They are made of particle board (high density fiberboard) with a wood or artificial veneer, and are shipped flat in boxes. The user assembles them using dowels, barrel nuts and other fasteners. The articles are attractive, from a distance, but often look and feel cheap on closer inspection. And inevitably, they break, particularly when moving them, as the barrel nuts snap out of the fiberboard or the veneer delaminates.

They also have another thing in common, too: They are incredibly cheap to buy. And for this reason, they are popular with college students, young people just starting out, and folks looking for a quick and cheap way to furnish an entire room, apartment, or house, on a budget.

However, for the long-term, they are not a real bargain. Yes, this type of furnishing is less than half the cost of quality furniture. But it doesn't last even half as long.

When I was younger, I remember my Mother always saying, "buy quality furniture, you'll have it for the rest of your life". Well-made furniture can last decades, even centuries. For example, my parents had a sofa they purchased before I was born. They re-upholstered it twice. It is over 50 years old now and still in use.

We have a sleeper sofa with a hardwood frame that we have re-upholstered twice. It is nearly 30 years old now and still going strong - with decades of use left in it. We purchased two chairs to match it, had them reupholstered, and have had them for 15 years. They are at least 30 years old. Solid hardwood framing, serviceable and capable of being recovered many times.

Today, upholstery shops are getting harder and harder to come by, as more people opt for disposable furniture, which is discarded when the fabric wears out. Probably this is basic economics, as the labor cost of re-upholstering is far more than new, cheaper furniture these days.

But hard furniture (tables, book-cases, etc.) have no fabric to wear out. These pieces, if cared for and if quality made, can last decades with proper use. IKEA-type particle board pieces, in contrast, have a limited life span. Investing in quality furniture over time is probably a better idea than buying an entire roomful of pieces from the IKEA catalog, even if the latter gives you that "instant decorating" feel.

So where did all my IKEA pieces go? Here is a summary:

1. Kitchen: The IKEA kitchen looked great in the store and was cheaper than kitchen cabinets sold at home improvement stores at the time. Since then, home improvement stores have started to offer the same types of knock-down particle board kitchens that IKEA sells. We bought the cabinets from IKEA back in the days they were clinging to the metric system. As a result, everything was metric and caused some interesting installation issues.

Worse yet, after a few years, IKEA decided to cave in and sell cabinets in inch sizes, to appeal to a larger market. By then (5 years) many of the cabinet faces had started to delaminate. Water dripping from the melamine IKEA counter-top dripped on the lower cabinet faces, and the wood veneer started to peel. Since IKEA no longer sold the metric cabinets, we could not buy replacement doors. Ouch.

I bought a second set of cabinets and used them for an entertainment center. A friend made marble tops for these cabinets using scrap pieces. I still have these in my office for storage. Like most IKEA-type furniture, it did not survive the move well. While this type of furniture may work well when static, when you move it, any stress tends to tear out the barrel nuts, causing the piece to collapse. They have been repaired with screws, but screws have a hard time going into high density fiberboard, and tend to "pop" the board if not carefully installed.

Total life span, about 10 years.

Today, we have custom-made cabinets in our Georgia home. They are not that much more than particle board cabinets, and have real solid hardwoods and plywood. They look better and last longer.

In our New York home, we have Merrilat cabinets which came with the house. While an inexpensive cabinet, they are surprisingly well-made, with solid wood faces. While we initially were going to change these, we decided that after putting new pulls on them, they were ready for another 15 years of service.

2. Bed: We also got stung here by the switch by IKEA from metric to English sizes. We bought an IKEA bed and it worked well for a few years. The joints on the bed were problematic and kept pulling out, though. And after five years, the mattress was pretty much lumpy and shot. We went back to IKEA to get a new one, and, well, they didn't sell the metric sizes anymore.

The metric size thing was a fiasco from a sheet perspective, too. American style sheets never fit the metric beds properly, and the selection of metric sheets at IKEA was limited.

We bought a platform bed off the internet (same idea, shipped in pieces, but made of plywood and solid pine, made in America) and salvaged the headboard from the IKEA bed for that. It is still in use in our guest room - the headboard, that is.

Both our beds are now Tempurpedic models, which have held up well for over five years. And they are more comfortable, too.

And the bedframe?  Stickley - solid quarter-sawn "tiger" oak with beautiful inlays.  Expensive?  Yes, but it will be the last bed I ever buy.  It will be around decades after I am dead.   And frankly, I wished I had saved up to buy one when I was much younger.   It would have been a sacrifice, but if you subtract the cost of the crap furniture I bought in the interim, I would have come out ahead.

3. Lamps: IKEA has cheap lamps. But they use plastic housings for the lamp sockets, which tend to crack over time. Others stopped working. Replacing the plastic housings with brass ones requires you rebuild the whole lamp, basically. So yes, they are cheap lamps. But no, they don't last very long. Of all the IKEA lamps we bought over the last 20 years (5-10) none are still around.

4. Tables: We also purchased some small end tables and the like over the years from IKEA. Where are they now? They went to the trash long ago. They fell apart, delaminated, had the barrel nuts pull out, whatever. They looked good for a year or two and that's it. After 5-10 years, they went out to the curb.

5.  Desks:  I bought a Ballard Designs desk set (desk, return, file cabinets) for my home office in Georgia.  While it was cheap and looked good for a few years, the laminate - like an IKEA piece - started to come apart.   I sold it at a garage sale for less than 1/4 of what I paid for it.   I have heavy, commercial-grade cherry laminate desks now, and they will likely last as long as I live.

* * *

So our track record with IKEA and IKEA-style furniture has not been good. While the stuff was cheap to buy, it was also cheaply made and did not last long.  At best, IKEA is a temporary furniture solution, not a long-term investment.

The other problem with IKEA is SHOPPING.  As I have noted time and again, shopping (looking at products without any real purchasing goals in mind) is a dangerous pastime. You decide, after looking at a shopping display, to purchase, rather than making a purchase decision and then researching and comparing prices and quality.

And the IKEA store is a shopping nightmare. The stores were arranged in a serpentine track, so when you entered the store (after dropping the kids off in the ball-room and admiring the Volvo displayed out front, loaded with knocked-down IKEA furniture) you had to walk through each section of the store in order to reach the eventual checkout.

Typically, halfway through the store, they had the IKEA cafeteria, with the ubiquitous Swedish meatballs. You would walk by display after display and think, "Wow, it would be neat to have a room like that!" and before you know it, you and the spouse have convinced each other, over a platter of meatballs, that getting the Bjorn bookcase and the Sven desk is not only a good idea, but something that you thought up yourself.

So rather than saying "Gee, I need a bookshelf, let's compare prices, styles, quality, and availability from several sources", you end up saying "Hey, that's a nice bookshelf, maybe I should buy it?" Shopping reverses the ordinary buying procedure by presenting you with the product and convincing you to buy, rather than vice-versa.

IKEA also caters to the "I want it all NOW" crowd. Rather than wait and build up an inventory of quality furniture over the years, IKEA promises you that you can have an entire houseful of furniture overnight (some assembly required) if you just whip out a credit card.

And again, I am not picking on IKEA. The catalog people do the same thing. You sit on the toilet reading the Ballard Designs catalog and suddenly it occurs to you that you desperately need a fake crafstman-style bookcase, because it looked so good in the catalog shoot.

Real furniture costs a lot more money, of course. But it lasts a lot longer, and moreover, holds its value. We have Stickley furniture in one home. It is made of quarter-sawn oak, not high-density particleboard. And after years and years of use, we can probably sell it for what we paid for it, rather than hauling it to the curb in pieces.  It will outlive us.

So while it may cost more initially, quality furniture, in the long run, ends up being less costly to own.

And oddly enough, much of the furniture that we still have, after decades, is quality stuff that we found, was cast-off, was bought in a junk shop, or was given to us by others. They were quality pieces and lasted a long time, but cost less than the "new and shiny" stuff from a furniture store.

For example, our main dining room in Jekyll has a solid oak slab table 12 feet long that is nearly 300 years old and was a family inheritance. The chairs? Old solid oak chairs from a high school, along with a used church pew, both of which we bought at a junk shop.   All solid stuff, and the cost, little to nothing. And it will outlast the Svenson dining room set sold at IKEA by 50 years or more.  Maybe 100.

But of course, there are situations where you need cheap furniture. The college apartment, for example, or your first starter home. Oftentimes you cannot afford to furnish such a place with quality furniture, but you do need a place to sit.

And it can be a cheap and easy solution, I'm not denying that. One friend of ours furnished their pied-à-terre entirely with IKEA. The modern Swedish styling complemented the Bauhaus style of their modern apartment and allowed them to completely furnish it in a weekend, for the less than the cost of one paycheck.

They smartly SAVED the assembly instructions and assembly tools in a ziplock bag.  If they do decide to move this furniture, they can disassemble it, put all the fasteners in the ziplock bag, and ship the pieces flat, rather than assembled.  Not only is this easier to do, it is more likely they will have something other than a pile of sawdust at the other end of the deal.

But they realize it will not be heirlooms handed down through the generations. All IKEA type furniture has a dumpster in its future, usually within 5-10 years. Just bear that in mind.

A special note on Office Furniture: Office furniture stores often sell the same concept: inexpensively made office furniture that looks fancy, but is made of particle board. Before you over-spend on this stuff, check out used office furniture, either online (Craig's list) or from a retailer. Often, quality pieces are available for less money than new fiberboard.

There are other inexpensive furniture solutions as well, of course. We furnished our Florida condos entirely in wicker and rattan, for a surprisingly small amount of money. No assembly was required and the furniture held up well. Actually, well-made wicker can last a long time and even be collectible. However it is a tropical style that only works well in southern latitudes.

When we moved to Georgia, we furnished our entire house, in one shot, from the same wicker and rattan shop. While not heirloom quality furniture, it has held up well (over five years now) and when we decide to move the Stickley there, we can probably re-sell the rattan to one of the locals for about what we paid for it.

So I understand the motivation to want to furnish it all now, using cheap furniture. But before you drop a lot of dough on particle board, bear in mind that in 10 years or so, you probably won't own that furniture. Before you "shop" at IKEA or in a catalog, consider buying some used heirloom quality furniture at your local antique shop. Or perhaps just drive around the richer parts of town on trash day. You'd be surprised at what you can find out there.