With few alternative outlets for budget furniture purchases, a visit to Ikea is almost unavoidable for those setting up home in the UAE. Whether you're buying an Ektorp sofa and Billy bookcases or popping in for a new duvet cover or bumper bag of tea lights, the Marina Mall store has become a destination familiar to thousands of residents.
The UAE's first taste of Ikea came when a small shop opened up in Karama, Dubai, in 1991. Twenty years later, the Swedes' success here is evident with the opening of a mammoth new store on Yas Island, at which an estimated 1.3 million of us will visit this year.
The completion of the store - the largest Ikea in the Middle East - also meant the closing of Abu Dhabi's original, smaller Marina Mall location, news that did not go down well with car-less residents in the capital.
As one disgruntled regular put it: "Yas Island? I don't want to take a Dh50 taxi ride just to buy a potato masher."
The store is three times the size of the one in Marina Mall, and significantly larger than the Dubai Festival City branch. But a visit there now means an hour of round-trip travel from Abu Dhabi by taxi or shuttle bus, and (as we discovered) a potentially long wait for a taxi back to the city.
Occupying out-of-town locations is a key part of the firm's business strategy. By luring customers away from city centres out to large superstores, it reasons, shoppers are more inclined to make a dedicated trip, tend to buy more and are probably less willing to make a return trip to take back unwanted purchases. Judging from the number of customers in store in the first weekend of opening, however, Abu Dhabi is already embracing the change.
The new location has plenty of positives, too. The larger premises mean that all the products are available in the store, eliminating the need to wait while your furniture is brought in from Dubai - or worse, until the next goods shipment arrives from abroad, which can mean a wait of several weeks.
"Having all the products available under one roof means that our customers are able to take away purchases on the same day," says the store's manager, James McGowan. "We are also able to hold sufficient stock cover, which ensures that our service level to the customer is not affected, helping us to achieve our goal of instant gratification."
So far, this appears to be the case. All the large furniture items we asked about ordering could be delivered to our home within three days. The delivery cost remains a flat Dh100, and it's free if you spend more than Dh2,500. An essential service if you're relying on the shuttle bus.
You can, of course, purchase a fair bit with your dirhams. The cost of its goods is Ikea's biggest customer incentive. It sets its prices at 10 per cent lower than those of its local rivals to send the message that the journey will be worth it. The Ikea philosophy also follows a principle that the Scandinavians hold dear: democratised design. This is the idea that, as Professor Robert Reid explains, that life is enhanced when form and function are celebrated and good design should be made available to all.
The success of Ikea's approach is undisputed. When the notoriously secretive company opened its books two years ago for the first time in its 51-year history, it revealed profits of €2.5 billion (Dh13 billion) for a single financial year. It currently has more than 280 stores in 26 countries, employs 123,000 people, and last year it printed 198 million copies of its catalogue in 56 editions and 27 languages.
The scale of the Yas Island store underlines the strength of consumer demand for Ikea products here. It's evident as soon as the entrance escalator delivers you to the first-floor showroom. Aisles are wide and spacious, and there are 58 room sets to browse, including two fully designed open-plan "homes" that customers can walk through. Each is carefully styled so customers can take away ideas for decorating an entire residence and making the most of limited space. The kitchen design section and the massive accessories and warehouse department occupy the ground floor. Everything is bigger, brighter with a considerably larger selection of goods.
At the end of the walk-through departments on the first floor is a light, bright cafeteria area. The restaurant opens at 9.30am, serving a Dh4 breakfast to lure in early bird shoppers half an hour before trading begins. The ground floor also has a supervised children's play zone called Smĺland that is staffed with experienced minders and was already attracting a long queue of eager kids (and relieved parents).
One of the store's first customers on opening day was Mary Carter, an Irish expatriate living in Dubai, who was shopping for dining room furniture with her husband. "It is very impressive and has a nice airy feel," she said of the new store. "It is the kind of place you would be better coming to early in the day because it is so big you would want to take time to see everything. I think it will be immensely popular."
McGowan says the main appeal of the Ikea experience, apart from the low prices, is that everything is available under one roof and that staff look after purchase, delivery and customer care issues down to the last detail.
"Customers love the fact they can take their furniture home the same day and enjoy it," he says. "Plus, because of all our on-site facilities it is a nice day out for the whole family, no matter how much you intend to buy. People feel happy when they come to Ikea."
The emotional experience aside, there is no denying the pulling power of this most unique of brands, which is good news for Yas Island restaurants in need of more traffic. A major new mall and more stand-alone stores, including a new Ace Hardware, are planned for 2013, but for now the superstore's familiar blue and yellow colours represent the only retail presence on the island. So if it's only a potato masher you're after, make sure they're in stock before making the trip.
10am to 10pm daily (restaurant opens at 9.30am for breakfast)
1,355 spaces are provided
Features 445 seats
There are 35 aisles
A free shuttle bus service operates seven days a week between Marina Mall and Ikea Yas Island. The public bus service operates every 20 minutes for Yas Island to Abu Dhabi city (bus 290). There is a taxi point located near the entrance of the store, although when we visited (on a weekday afternoon), none were visible. A sign at the store's exit advises customers to call the TransAd booking service on 600 535 3535. "We are currently working on a local awareness initiative to ensure that we have sufficient taxis available to meet our customer demand," an Ikea representative said.