Back in September, amidst the havoc in our house, the last thing I wanted to do was get on the highway, drive south to Rishon Lezion where I had never been before and devote the better part of my day to standing in line at IKEA. But our list was getting longer and more urgent as each day passed: the double sink for the master bedroom was defective and had to be exchanged, the top section of the drawers for our office was missing and the components for the master bedroom closet were incomplete. I procrastinated as long as possible and, finally, after buying a GPS, I agreed to go. And I was ecstatic when my friend Janet, who had her own IKEA errand, agreed to accompany me.
As we approached the exit from route 1, we could see the store in the distance and laughed at how impossible it is to miss. Regardless of country and language and culture, IKEAs appear identical: low, blue buildings with IKEA written in capital yellow letters. The similarities, however, end there.
My GPS guided us through the roundabouts and into the garage where like in all garages in this country (malls, supermarkets, medical offices, office buildings), a security guard stopped us. “Shalom, yesh lachem petrol?”he asked.
“Slicha. Lo hevanti,” I answered, letting him know I didn’t understand why he wanted to know if we had petrol. Usually security guards only open and check the trunk to make sure no one is carrying a weapon or bomb. This guy repeated the question but registered my accent and waved us in.
Once we parked, Janet went to fetch a cart while I began sorting through and unloading my returns. Somehow I hauled the double bathroom sink onto the cart and we carefully wheeled our way to the elevators toward the customer service entrance.
“Atem lo yicholim lekachat et ze be ma’alit ,” a boy in a blue-and-yellow IKEA shirt and vest said, oozing with authority to let us know we couldn’t take the cart into the elevator. He was young, probably in his early twenties, with very dark skin, hanging out on a curb with his co-workers .
“Im ken, ifshar la’azor li?” I asked him to help me if we couldn’t proceed. Since it was a little after 10 am and the store had just opened and no customers were in need of him and since he was clearly not otherwise engaged, I didn’t think it was too much to ask. He shook his head no; his friends/co-workers smirked at him, and at us.
We went back and forth, my voice rising in frustration up against typical Israeli lack of customer friendly-ness. Just because a store like IKEA with a strong customer service philosophy opens up in Israel doesn’t mean its employees will embrace it. Finally, Janet and I both turned away from them and pushed the cart into the elevator, ignoring their command and their snickers.
One floor up, a security guard greeted us to ask if we had a return. I pointed at the cart and shook my head yes and we followed his extended finger directing us to the right. We immediately spotted the automated number system and each took one. Then we sat and waited, talking, distracted since we were together. From start to finish, Janet and I spent three and a half hours on our first IKEA foray. Satisfied, we each accomplished what we needed.
Since then, I have made five more trips to IKEA and have become an expert. I can get there and back without the help of my BFF, in and out of the parking garage without discussion, in and out of customer service in usually less than 10 minutes, through the two floors in less than 20 and around the self-help warehouse with ease.
Although I have become an adept IKEA shopper, I continue to feel that there is something unique about this IKEA compared to IKEAs around the world, something beyond the apathetic Israeli employees and perfunctory albeit odd security questions. Indeed, during my third visit, late November, I began to identify that uniqueness. While standing in line at customer service, I looked beyond the clerk into the back storage room where rejects and returns were sent. There, on the doorframe of the open ledge to the back hung a mezuzah, a scroll of parchment containing biblical verses placed on the doorpost of a Jewish home as a sign of their faith. Maybe every store in Israel hangs mezuzahs inside their doorframes to storage areas or kitchens and returns and warehouses and I had simply never noticed. Or maybe the manager of customer returns was a devout Jew who required one in his or her department even if it was only a partial frame of a partial door.
After leaving customer service, I whizzed by the Swedish-food store selling smoked salmon and gingerbread cookies and there, in a bin, next to Wasabröd crackers, I noticed boxes of 8-chocolate covered Santas. In a land where Christians are in the minority, with around 2 percent of the population, I hadn’t seen much of Santa or any signs of Christmas. In the mainstream grocery stores as well as in every bakery, the main Hanukkah delight called sufganiutor jelly donuts dominate the displays. Adjacent to the store is IKEA’s typical fast food stand only here, instead of a cheeseburger and fries it sells falafel in a pita and fries. Alone and unburdened, I stopped and noticed the standard Israeli fare and smiled. At the end of that same visit, upon leaving the exhibit floors with yet another loaded cart, I stumbled upon the sign for the restaurant and peeked behind to see. I must have passed it before but only saw it for the first time, later learning it seats 500 people and is a kosher meat restaurant where butter, cream, milk and other dairy ingredients have no place. Only in Israel, I thought to myself.
My last three visits to IKEA were fast and almost fun. I people watched noticing that the store attracts everyone in this complicated land—the black-hat Ultra Orthodox man and his wig-wearing wife; the young secular couple moving in together; the newlyweds starting a home; new moms and their babies with their mothers or mother-in-laws in tow; Arab women wearing hijabs and their modern-dressing husbands; young and old; big and small, black and white and everything in between.
I think what makes IKEA in Israel unique is Israel—this crazy land that brings together disparate, very different people. Rather than try to homogenize the country, IKEA has responded and embraced its heterogeneity. It is IKEA’s willingness to serve all the populations in Israel and provide inexpensive, easy to assemble, simple solutions to all of them that makes it so exceptional.