IKEA: Love your particle-board home.

When we find a bargain, are we losing our sense of value?


I just arrived home from a family trip to IKEA. From what I can understand, this is a fairly common occurrence these days, especially for university students. Unfortunately, we all grew up watching university on TV, and as a result, we aspire to chic, colour-coordinated dorm rooms with plenty of useful and attractive storage and display units. The reality of a white-washed cube with plastic, pastel drapes just isn’t going to cut it. But what are you to do without a TV budget and set designers to brighten up the place?

IKEA promises a funky, fashionable living space with a small price tag. Their slogan is an encouraging promise: “Love your home!” Build a space you love! Or, conversely, stop being lazy and give your home some love! With prices this cheap, low cashflow is no longer an excuse for a less than designer residence.

But what are we really paying for?

In my case, no matter how much I’m spending, I get a big helping of family angst on the side. This angst is not limited to the hours spent standing on white linoleum, arguing over curtain rods and bookshelves. No, it’s the purchase that keeps on giving for hours of frustration and sweat to put together those assembly-required, particle board, “home-loving” contraptions that seemed so easy and convenient at the time (“Look, dear! flat pack boxes! It will be easy to fit in our sedan!”). My friend once told me that 12% of IKEA furniture assembly ends in divorce. She was joking, barely.

Maybe we’re buying the opportunity for reinvention. Wandering through the IKEA display rooms is like visiting a hall of opportunities of what your home could be. All you need it a little POÄNG. It worked for Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer (watch the scene here).

However, with lower prices comes lower quality (no matter what the adds tell you), so that fantasy home might not last the way you want it to. According to a new book called Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture by Atlantic Monthly contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell, the IKEAs and Wal-marts of the world are destroying real value. By placing emphasis on price (according to the CBC, IKEA designs its products to price), we’re forgetting that you get what you pay for.

“Is it really furniture, or is it kind of the idea of furniture?” Ruppel Shell said in an interview on CBC’s The Current. “Is it a good bookcase or is it a good cheap bookcase? And I would argue it’s a good cheap bookcase. And that’s almost an oxymoron.”

She says that this bargain-hunting is polarizing the market so we’re left with a choice of high-end and pricey versus cheap and lower-quality. The middle ground of balanced value is disappearing.

This seems to be a generational gap. One commenter on the CBC story, a second-hand-store shopper, remarked that the quality, second-hand items she loved to find in these stores were disappearing as the older generation who bought them first hand literally dwindles. I do point out that this commenter is another example of the discount culture: she searches for the quality in bargains. It seems no one is willing to shell out for quality anymore.

It’s a hard situation for university students. Our spending ability is limited, but we are the politically active ones right? And organic/green/local comes at a cost. I guess we need to decide if we value the added cost. If we haven’t completely lost the concept of true value already.


IKEA: Love your particle-board home.

  1. To be honest, I don’t think there is much incentive for students to invest in quality–or even “balanced value” products at that point in their lives. Many students live very transient existences–there’s no guarantee that they will be in the same living space, with the same people, or even, for an increasing number of students, on the same campus the following year. Investing in quality merchandise means that the average student will be loaded down with more stuff that they feel obliged to keep. If you’re moving from University of Calgary to Waterloo in your third year, having to part with (or ship) a heavy $500 desk is much less appealing than having to sell off the $60 one you bought at IKEA. Regardless, many students can’t afford spending $500 on a desk–many can’t afford spending $60 on a desk, for that matter. Does quality matter if you’re only planning to keep the item for a maximum of 5 years? Well, as long as it doesn’t break in less than that, I’d argue no. Once you have an income and a career, investing in quality becomes a more realistic option.

    On another note, in the particular case of bookcases, I’d argue that IKEA quality is actually superior to some more expensive bookcases. I used to have a ~$600 bookcase that I bought from (the Brick? Sears? I don’t remember). With a few hundred pounds of textbooks on it, the shelves started to bow within a couple months. I replaced it with a $100 IKEA one, which has been rock-solid for years under the same load.

  2. This seems related:

    “In Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, author Ellen Ruppel Shell asks, “What are we really buying when we insist on getting stuff as cheaply as possible?” Her answer: a low-quality food supply, a ruined economy, a polluted environment, low wages, a shoddy educational system, deserted town centers, ballooning personal debt, and the loss of craftsmanship. “

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