#107: Date With IKEA

I occasionally shop at the grocery store that Amazon owns, which occupies Williamsburg’s most accelerationist block, flanked by WeWork and Equinox with an Apple Store/Sweetgreen complex directly across the street. Perhaps due to the constraints of the building it occupies, this particular location of the Amazon grocery store feels especially hectic—I’ve visited others that offer more spaces to relax, have a beer, or otherwise slow down and hang out. Maybe it’s just my sensibility, but every time I set foot inside this store, I find myself urgently compelled to get through and check out as quickly as possible. Every time I go to Sweetgreen across the street, I feel the same way: Headphones on, I consume my nutrients quickly and then get the hell out. These are pleasant environments, by many criteria—far from the over-illuminated chaos of McDonald’s or the cavernous despair of Walmart—but they propel us through just as effectively.

Obviously, urban store locations with limited space, expensive real estate, and massive throughput need to ensure that everyone who enters maximizes their dollars spent per minute while inside, and the best way to do that is usually to minimize the denominator, time—or better yet, keep the customer from even setting foot in the store at all: Prominent sections of Amazon grocery stores are literally becoming fulfillment centers for local delivery, in addition to feeling like fulfillment centers for the customers who do enter and effectively become warehouse pickers until a numeric color-coded schema processes them through the checkout line and dumps them out on the street. IKEA provides an interesting counterpoint to this phenomenon: It basically is a warehouse, stocked with unassembled merchandise and located on the urban fringe. Shoppers save money by skipping the final link in the supply chain and doing more of the labor themselves. But IKEA, interestingly, doesn’t try to move us through quickly. Instead, we’re forced to follow a circuitous path through a long series of showrooms before, once again, picking the boxes from the warehouse shelves ourselves.

IKEA’s linear maze is still quite rational, a participatory advertisement for what’s being sold. But it nonetheless ensures that we spend too much time inside the store. A more severe version of this dynamic is the Gruen transfer, a principle of shopping mall design that uses environmentally-induced disorientation to maximize revenue. Sanford Kwinter writes, “The unconsciously bewildered shopper, rendered docile, cannot help but drift into the prepared pathways and patterns of externally induced consumer activity, unfocused but exquisitely suggestible to gentle but firm environmental cues.” At the opposite end of the retail spectrum from logistical efficiency is this other kind of optimization, one that doesn’t invite customers to become quasi-workers, but instead deepens their role as confused participants in a retailscape they must shop their way out of. IKEA’s design, meanwhile, is a curious hybrid of the two extremes. In the engineered environments where more and more shopping takes place, you can spend as much time as you want inside the store, or as little—it just won’t be up to you.

Back in June I gave a talk at Refactor Camp in Los Angeles about how urban environments and physical space are a form of escaped reality. The video from the event is finally edited and you can now watch my talk here. It was a fun opportunity to tie together a bunch of different ideas about architecture, urbanism, and technology that I’d been exploring for a while—check it out!