Feb. 18 (Bloomberg) -- At Ikea, you can fill your house to Scandinavian perfection with 9,000-plus products that fit almost any budget. What you won’t find: anything your neighbor hasn’t already seen.
For shoppers with some extra cash and a desire to stand out, growing numbers of entrepreneurs are changing that, with add-ons for Ikea’s ubiquitous offerings. Their creations range from $989 slipcovers for Ektorp sofas -- twice the price of the couch itself -- to $17 screw-on feet that transform a winged chair from mid-century throwback to hipster chic.
“Our goal is not to compete with Ikea on price,” said Lesley Pennington, founder of Bemz, a Stockholm company that sells coverings for Ikea couches, chairs and beds in 35 countries. “Our goal is to offer an individual, unique product for a mass-market product like an Ikea sofa.”
Welcome to the Ikea economy. Just as Apple Inc.’s iPods and iPads have engendered an ecosystem of companies that make docks, headphones, and apps, Ikea is spawning scrappy upstarts aiming to piggyback on its success.
The world’s largest furniture retailer says the design, manufacture, and sale of its goods accounts for some 2.7 million jobs worldwide. Faced with such a dominant player, it can make more sense for newcomers to dress up Ikea products than to make actual furniture. For buyers who yearn for sophistication but are hooked on $249 sofas, they offer a bit of originality without breaking the bank. And for Ikea, the trend helps drive sales and loyalty among customers.
“It’s likely only with very strong brands this can happen,” said Lena Larsson, head of HUI Research, a retail consultant in Stockholm. “Other companies are riding on the strong brand whose image is, so to speak, spilling over to them.”
Pennington, who started Bemz a decade ago, was inspired by the time she spent working for Apple, where she helped create an ecosystem of extras around the company’s products.
“We have customers who have said to us that they will buy an Ikea sofa for the first time, so it’s just like Apple, if you have value in the ecosystem, it creates more value for everyone,” Pennington said while displaying textiles in the company’s Stockholm showroom.
At least a dozen other companies are similarly tying their fortunes to Ikea. In Sweden, Prettypegs sells legs for Ikea couches and chairs, and Superfront makes facings and tops for Ikea cabinets. Amsterdam-based Mykea sells stickers for customizing Ikea furniture. In Melbourne, Comfort Works will make slipcovers of your designs and fit them to Ikea chairs and sofas.
Ikea spokeswoman Ylva Magnusson said that while the trend raises some concerns about safety and product integrity, the company is pleased that others are promoting its wares.
With Ikea releasing 2,000 new products a year and aiming to double sales to 50 billion euros ($68.6 billion) by 2020, the upstarts are counting on a growing customer base. Bemz’s revenue last year increased by around 20 percent to 50 million Swedish kronor ($8 million), Pennington said.
Despite Ikea’s global following, it has plenty of detractors who dread visits to its crowded, maze-like stores and grind their teeth over missing parts and cryptic instructions when battling with its self-assembly products. Some of those doubters have been won over by the makers of add-ons.
“The only reason why we bought an Ikea couch” was that it could use legs from Prettypegs, Katrina Ewers Bjerre wrote on her Facebook page last month. “And our dog Grace is happy with her new couch.”
Anne Turunen, a resident of the Swedish island of Gotland who uses coverings to change the look of her rooms each season - - orange for winter and blue for summer -- said she was drawn by the designer textiles offered by Bemz. And, she said, “it’s cheaper than buying a new sofa.”
“We don’t want people to throw their sofas away, we want them to keep them and to reuse them and decorate with textiles,” Pennington said.
Ikea’s business is built around the idea of buying and transporting products in bulk and using its size to keep costs down. Offering customers hundreds of textile choices for sofa covers, like Bemz does, goes against what Ikea is all about.
“People want to put their personal stamp in a simple way,” said Prettypegs co-founder Jana Cagin, who started the company with her fiancé in 2012 after she found Ikea’s sofas stylish, but the legs too standardized. “It just wasn’t quite us, and that’s how we came up with the idea.”
Cagin has also taken a page from Ikea in giving products Scandinavian names. A four-pack of colored legs that sells for $112 are called Astrid, for Pippi Longstocking author Astrid Lindgren. At Ikea, similar couch legs called Sultan start at $15.
“This is an industry that will grow,” said Sander Aarts, a furniture craftsman and co-founder of Superfront, which boasts 10,000 ways to modify Ikea’s Metod kitchens, Pax wardrobes and Bestaa sideboards. He says Superfront, which started a year ago, made a profit in its second month of business and is now shipping to eight countries.
“People who may not even open the Ikea catalog really want our products,” Aarts said while showing off his Ikea kitchen adaptations at Superfront’s showroom in central Stockholm. “There are people coming in every day wondering why they didn’t come up with this themselves.”
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