Helen Dickinson on retail: Chaos in IKEA may be taste of things to come

Many of you will have read of the recent commotion that broke out in Edmonton, North London on 10 February. The standard reaction upon hearing such a story is to assume it is the result of gang violence, a football match or a drunken mob. Chances are the first thing that springs to mind is not a 6,000-strong crowd of shoppers, hell-bent on snapping up a cheap sofa at the opening of an IKEA store.

But as we all know now, that is exactly what happened. The store was open a grand total of 30 minutes before managers decided to close it down.

The whole episode was extremely unsavoury, but it did highlight the way this sector has changed in recent years. After all, can you ever remember your parents jostling with the neighbours in a battle to get the cheapest flat-pack dining table? Didn't think so. Back then, a sofa was for life, not just for the spring season.

I have often made reference to the changing lifestyles of the UK public and the impact this has on purchasing habits. The current trend for changing your living room almost as often as you change your wardrobe is what has brought retailers such as IKEA to the attention of the public. It also brought us Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, but I'll let you make up your own mind as to whether or not that is a good thing.

Love it or loathe it - and it does seem rather adept at polarising popular opinion - IKEA has had a major impact on UK retail. Its brand is incredibly strong - no small achievement given that it is operating out of a relatively small number of stores.

Incredibly, the Edmonton outlet is only its 13th in the UK.

We may hear a lot more about IKEA and the homewares sector in general in the near future. The reason is that IKEA hopes finally to win approval for a smaller store format in Milton Keynes. Apparently, a further eight are planned, as long as the Milton Keynes prototype can make it past the planning regulations that have so far stalled IKEA's progress.

It is no secret that retail is a fairly fragmented industry when considered as a whole. That fragmentation is even more acute when you look at the homewares sector. The five biggest operators account for just 25% of the total market. The remaining 75% is made up of numerous retailers, none of which can lay claim to an individual market share in excess of 4%.

When you consider just who the players are in this market, you start to realise just how wide-ranging the sector is. Argos, MFI, DFS, M&S and Next are the well-known names, but for every one of these chains there are countless specialists, many operating at the higher-value end of the market. These are the businesses standing firm against the commoditisation of their product, offering a tailor-made solution for which, as it is made especially for you, you have to wait.

If IKEA gets the green light for its smaller stores, we can expect the company to embark on a major drive to increase its market share, which currently stands at about 5%. The format would mean the UK public's admiration for IKEA's 'choose it, buy it, take it away now' offering could be satisfied at a much more local level, removing the need to drive for an hour or two to reach the nearest megastore. Its competitors are probably shuddering at the thought.

With so many businesses jostling for market share, it might be fair to expect a spate of cost-cutting and special offers from the other players if the IKEA planners get their way. The question is whether the competition has missed the chance to make a concerted effort to pick up extra share while the giant in their midst is bound up in red tape. Is Britain about to be overwhelmed by flat-pack pine and Allen keys? Only time will tell.

30 SECONDS ON... THE IKEA RIOT

- The opening of IKEA's Edmonton store was to be marked by 24 hours of cut-price deals, including leather sofas for £45 and double bed frames for £30.

- IKEA expected 2,000 bargain-hunters, but when it opened at midnight some 6,000 were struggling to get in.

- With the car park full, desperate shoppers abandoned their vehicles on the A406 North Circular, leading to severe traffic problems.

- Trouble started when a number of latecomers barged past customers in the queue, some of whom had been waiting for 12 hours. In the 30 minutes the store was open, fights broke out between customers, and a man even threatened a woman with a mallet. Six people were hospitalised, and 20 were treated for heat exhaustion.

- It was not the first riot at an IKEA. In Saudi Arabia, three people died in a stampede last September when a store offered £80 gift vouchers.

- The Edmonton outlet reopened on 11 February, but dropped the special offers.

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