Swedish businessman Linus Frejf's time in Malaga hasn't been easy. Having only just arrived after spells in Russia and Poland, and with only a handful of Spanish lessons under his belt, the Covid-19 pandemic changed all of our lives forever.
As director of the IKEA store in Bahía Azul, next to the Plaza Mayor shopping centre in Malaga, he has had to oversee major changes in a short period of time. Not only the way we make purchases has changed, but also where our priorities now lie. We asked him to reflect on the past year and how the company has been forced to bring forward its plans in a bid to adapt to our 'new normal'.
How was 2020 for the company?
It was challenging - for all of us. But in a way, business is surprisingly good.
How has the pandemic affected you?
More than anything, the pandemic has pushed us five years into the future. Everything we were anticipating, everything we were planning for around 2025 to 2030 has been brought forward. During this pandemic we've had to become much closer to the people - the people that couldn't come to the store because of restrictions or because they didn't dare to go to a shopping centre. In Granada we have opened a click and collect at the Nevada shopping centre where there will also be an IKEA Diseña, where we help customers to make orders but also to plan kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. This is kind of the model that we're trying to build. Then we'll see what we can do in other parts of the region. The next focus now is very much along the western Costa del Sol, where we don't have an IKEA touchpoint until more or less Algeciras. So there is quite a long distance where IKEA is non-existent at the moment.
How has the pandemic changed us as consumers?
We could see two quite clear trends in Malaga. Normally, people don't spend so much time at home. Malaga is a fantastic city; we spend more money on restaurants and bars and on drinks and food than we do on our home furnishing. We don't invite family and friends to our home so much; we tend to go to 'chiringuitos' or to restaurants or to the beach. I think this time gave our customers a totally new view of what the home is, and what it could be. I think many, including myself, realised that they didn't have a work space at home that is suitable for sitting and having eight-hour meetings. The second thing we realised was that we will all be a little bit less prone to travel so that's why we decided to focus super strongly on our accessibility business plan.
Do you think this sudden surge in interest in improving our homes will last?
I don't think this is something that will disappear quickly. Even with restrictions easing up and a vaccine arriving, I think people will still have a bit of a mental barrier about living life as freely as we did before. My feeling is there will be a continual trend of spending more time in our homes, which we will open up to more people. I also think more people will be free to work from wherever they want in the world, and not only from the home.
What did customers prioritise most during lockdown?
Quite early on during lockdown I asked the staff what they were experiencing in their homes and we all kind of came to the same conclusion. If we had children, we didn't have good storage for them. Also, we were all working from home and none of us had a good workstation. We didn't have a comfortable chair, no desk... not an ergonomically safe environment at all. And then as we spent much more time together as a family, I think storage in general was the part that stood out a lot.
Did any items surprise you?
One type of storage surprised me a little bit and that was wardrobes. But some people have more love for shoes and clothes than I do. I have my uniform on for 12 hours every day!
Did you run out of stock of many items?
Certainly. What's extremely challenging in a big international company like IKEA is that we're reliant on a supply chain and supply chains don't react very well to panic breaks and that's difficult to get going again.
If another strict lockdown happens again, do you feel you'd be prepared this time around?
For sure. During the first lockdown we went from having between 80 and 90 per cent of total turnover from customers physically coming through the doors to becoming a 100 per cent online retailer. After just a couple of days we realised that doing everything from a central fulfilment centre was not feasible. So after a couple of weeks we brought all our people back into the stores and turned all of them in Spain into local fulfilment centres. So now we have the model, we could simply go back to it and then work out how to make it even better.
Have restrictions on foreign travel affected you? Have you noticed that there aren't as many foreigners coming in?
Absolutely. Malaga is a super popular tourist destination which means that in a normal year, about 30 per cent of our total turnover is from foreign customers.
Do you think Brexit will have an effect?
I'm hoping that we have already seen its negative impact on the Spanish and Malaga economy and that there will be a turnaround. We actually started seeing a declining trend about two years ago with the Brexit referendum and then of course with the lockdown. Over summer about half of the foreign customers as normal were coming. Now with new mobility restrictions it is even less. But with the relaxation of restrictions, we are expecting more visitors, also from other provinces, and we are prepared with more stock, new scheduling and new safety measures to prevent bottlenecks.
Speaking of bottlenecks, is there any progress on the project to get the new access road?
At the moment this is still in progress. Everything from our perspective is ready. Now the only thing is to get the final approval from the city hall and we're ready to go. We're hoping to have it by spring.
IKEA has announced it's no longer publishing its catalogue in paper form. Why's that?
Well we will have the current one until August. But it's a development that's in keeping with the times. That said the catalogue is much more than just a tool for finding home furnishings - it's an event. So next year you'll still receive something, but I'm not allowed to share what it is!
And the company is now moving more towards reusing furniture. Is that correct?
Exactly. I've been with this company for about 15 years, and I've always had a very strong connection with the brand's values which are very much connected to circularity and sustainability. What we haven't been so effective at is communicating it - we're a little bit too humble. Now we are taking a few steps with our new rebanded Circular Hub section, a concept from the 80s, to give furniture, which would normally go in the bin, a second chance.
Shopping in IKEA seems easier these days. Before it felt like you were trapped in a maze. Is this a deliberate change?
It's a big store here - 23,500 square metres and there are 10,000 article numbers so to have the necessary stock you need a long way to walk around. But here we've opened up in an excellent way. We've taken away taller things so that visitors can get more of an overview. The IKEA standard concept has shortcuts but sometimes they're not prioritised and they become a little bit hidden but Malaga has made a point to highlight the shortcuts to make it a little bit easier. This is a local Malaga initiative. But in general too we're also becoming much better at understanding what the customer actually wants to see and then allowing them to see that quite quickly.
The same applies to assembling items. Assembling an IKEA product doesn't take as long as it used to...
Self assembly is an old concept that provides both sustainability improvements and also cost saving. The latest IKEA development is to include dowels in more parts of the range, especially in our new storage and kitchen solutions. They're all connected without screws so it makes it much easier and also gives you a cheaper piece of furniture at the end of the day. Of course, too, the instructions are improving as we find ways to make things more efficiently.