Aishwarya Ramesh
Road To Recovery

"Indian customers are among the smartest and savviest": Amitabh Pande, IKEA India

A chat with the India marketing head of Swedish home furnishings retailer.

IKEA, which is a part of the Ingka Group – a Swedish home furnishings retailer, launched a store in Navi Mumbai in December 2020. It is IKEA’s second store in India and the first big format store in Maharashtra.

One can’t help but wonder about the timing and the intent of the launch. It is a time when India is battling the COVID-19 pandemic. For the most part of the year (2020), the country was under lockdown.

Now, the country is gradually unlocking and people are able to venture out of their homes again. Some continue to work from home, but largely, life is making an attempt to return to normal.

With a planned investment of Rs 6,000 crore by 2030, IKEA aims to meet 25 million people in Maharashtra. It will provide over 6,000 jobs, of which 50 per cent will be for women. In Navi Mumbai, IKEA is expected to boost employment opportunities for the local community.

The IKEA Navi Mumbai store will employ close to 1,000 coworkers, of which 50 per cent will be women, and 40 per cent of these will be from the local area. Currently, the store has more than 70 per cent support staff – mainly housekeeping and security – coming from in and around Turbhe and Ghansoli areas.

IKEA's store
IKEA's store

IKEA continues to develop its omnichannel presence with e-commerce, physical stores and additional services as click and collect, click and deliver and remote planning. After the Navi Mumbai store, two more IKEA city centre stores will open in 2021. IKEA is already present online in Hyderabad and Pune, and has the ambition to reach 100 million Indian customers by 2022.

Over email, afaqs! had the opportunity to quiz Amitabh Pande, country marketing manager, IKEA India, about the Navi Mumbai store and the challenges ahead. Pande mentions that the Navi Mumbai store was one of the most complex launches the brand has undertaken so far.

“Usually, a store launch, or for that matter any launch we do in the marketing world, has one single-minded objective. To create high excitement, buzz and footfalls (or trials, to use another marketing jargon) to the store in the first few weeks and months of the launch.”

Amitabh Pande
Amitabh Pande

“The complexity in our launch was that this single-minded objective got split in the middle, right into two conflicting halves! To create excitement and buzz for the new store launch that many Mumbaikars have been waiting for, yet not to have high footfalls so we could ensure a safe shopping experience. This was our biggest challenge.”

While discussing the safety measures, Pande mentions that they had to restrict the number of customers present in the store through the day. That’s why they created the concept of a daily division of visiting slots that customers had to book online before visiting.

“This way, we managed to control the number of people and yet give a safe shopping experience for the people who registered.”

Other safety measures were also implemented in the store – from ensuring that everyone is wearing masks, to social distancing practices, sanitisers everywhere, high level of regular cleaning, sanitising throughout the store.

Customers also had other omnichannel shopping options. Those who didn’t want to or couldn’t visit the store, could shop online and get the products delivered to their home. Or, they could order online and pick it up from outside the store through IKEA’s click and collect service.

The assumption is that India is a country that has not yet taken to DIY culture. So, how will IKEA make its mark? Pande admits that he is asked this question frequently. He counters it by pointing out that one of the biggest sellers in IKEA’s Hyderabad store is the FIXA tool kit set that is used to assemble any product.

“Entering India, we had the same question, but Indian customers are one of the smartest and the savviest in the world. They are really open to new experiences that a brand can bring to them. DIY has also particularly taken off during the pandemic, where more and more people locked at home are getting used to DIY.”

“So, some of these traditional myths about Indian culture are being busted as we speak. Having said that, as IKEA, we provide the entire suite of services – get products delivered to your home, get assembly and installation from IKEA and our associates,” explains Pande.

Talking about the challenges brought on by the pandemic, he says it is important “never to waste a good crisis”. He adds that he learnt so much about human behaviour.

“Like the humility of not feeling like a superior species anymore, being brought down to our knees by a micro-organism, like the fact that we can all be happy with so much less than what we have or desire for.”

He adds that he learnt that brands need to lead from their purpose and not mindlessly chase consumption growth, like listening to people with empathy, and thinking of them as humans first, consumers last.

According to him, the most exciting part of being a marketer has been going through all these learnings and insights like a crash course. He compares it to a scene from the film ‘The Matrix’, when Neo, the protagonist, gets plugged into the system. And, in a few minutes, he gets a crash course in ‘Jujutsu’ (a form of Japanese martial arts) and suddenly he is an expert.

“That’s how these last few months have been, in terms of learnings and insights for all of us (marketers). Any crisis always amplifies underlying cultural and social faults and changes. Seeing all of these together, being able to understand them and then respond to these needs of my customers in a ‘responsible’ way, as a marketer, has been one of the most challenging things,” says Pande.

He adds that home furnishing industry is still in its early stages, and post pandemic, the significance of the comfort of people’s life at home has increased.

“So, as a category, there is a wide role for different players to operate and grow together. At IKEA, we always believe in this principle of growing together along with the category, rather than have a market share mindset.”

“Different brands have different strengths and roles in people’s lives. And, we will all play our role in growing the category. We are committed to India for the long-term, and 2021 will be the third year of this journey. We’re really looking forward to it and to 2021,” he concludes.