IKEA Survival Guide

by Carlos Portocarrero on 13 April 2010 19 comments

When it comes to buying stylish furniture on the cheap, IKEA has become the number one destination. My wife is an interior designer and I know how expensive "real" furniture is from "fancy" stores.

So I know how awesome IKEA's prices are. But shopping at IKEA can be kind of a nightmare. It's a time suck that can test your patience and cause even the more experienced shoppers to shut down in despair. It happened to me this weekend and so I decided I wanted to be part of the solution.

I've put together some helpful tips to help you get in, get what you want, and get out without sucking away hours of your time.

1. Prepare

Before you set foot in the store, go online or request a catalog so you can get an idea of what you're about to step into. It doesn't matter how many times you've shopped at IKEA, if you go in with the idea to "just look around," be prepared to waste a LOT of time doing just that.

You can prepare by singling out pieces you like, writing down the names of the models (which are always interesting), and getting a rough idea of what you're interested in buying. Oh and if you don't have a floorplan, get one. Even if it's a rough one, it helps.

2. Create a Prioritized Plan

This one is key and involves some heavy lifting. Once you've gotten an idea of what you like and don't like, sit down with a blank sheet of paper and decide what it is you're shopping for. IKEA is kind of like Bed, Bath & Beyond — there is always something you can buy there even if you don't need it.

So write down the different pieces you need to buy (notice I said need, not want) and put them in order. You may want 10 things but can only afford to buy three of four, so only include those three or four pieces. The most important goes at the top and then go from there.

This will help guide you once you get in there and are overwhelmed by all the Swedish je ne sais quoi that IKEA is oozing with. Without this piece of paper you might walk into IKEA and never come out...

3. Grab a Map

They give these out at the entrance for a reason. The store is built to dangle as many cool things as possible in front of you. The zig-zag design is meant to trap you in their maze of bright colors and funky names.

Don't let them beat you. Take a map and don't let it go.

4. Take a Break

If you have lots of pieces of furniture on your list, don't forget to take a break. Enjoy some Swedish snacks and a drink. Take a load off. Sit down and re-evaluate what you've seen and how much longer you can stand being in the store. I find that after two hours I start to lag a little bit.

5. Finish Up

Ready to buy what you like? Before you do, ask for help — especially if you're having problems deciding. The people that work at IKEA know their stuff and are usually really good at helping out. They can tell you how pieces fit together or where a specific piece can be found. And don't forget: You don't have to buy anything. Just because you drove out there and spent a couple hours in the store shouldn't make you feel like it's a wasted trip if you don't come out with five or six heavy boxes.

I came out with a light bulb and felt great.

Now head down to the basement and find your boxes. Good luck packing the car. You'll need a whole other survival guide to help you fit everything in your trunk.

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Guest's picture
gt0163c

My biggest IKEA survival tip is DON'T GO ON THE WEEKEND! IKEA is overwhelming without a ton of people. Add the weekend crowd and things get even more crazy. I've done a couple of trips on Fridays and had really enjoyable experiences.

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Great tip! And it looks like other readers totally agree. I love it when readers add tips that I had never thought of. I don't think I've ever been to IKEA during the week since it's so far away for me. Well done!

Guest's picture
Kat

#2a - Never ever go to Ikea on the weekend.  I actually told my husband to take away the car keys if I ever said I was going to Ikea on Saturday or Sunday.

Guest's picture
Nathan

The other thing is to note the shortcuts on the map. I think every store has sneaky hidden shortcuts that allow you to bypass big chunks of the store. Especially helpful if you need to go back to the start to get something you decided you couldn't live without.

Guest's picture
Guest

I am a huge IKEA fan, but it can be totally overwhelming, especially the mouse-maze they take you through. It's designed to make you see everything. At least at the IKEA's here in California, if you look up you will see signs directing you to various sections, so you can bypass what you don't need.

I totally agree with going anytime but on a weekend. If you must go on a weekend, have a plan as mentioned in the article, and get there when they open. "Search and destroy", getting what you need and getting out.

Their prices are low because you do the heavy lifting (literally) yourself. If you are set on buying couches and kitchen cabinets, for example,  bring at least a friend or two to help get stuff off the shelves and onto your cart. Those cartons are HEAVY. And bring a spacious vehicle.

 

Guest's picture
Guest

"shop" them online, and make a wishlist, then when you print, make sure the list indicates the location of each item that you want, that way you can head straight for the marketplace  to choose your items and bypass everything.

 

Definitely go Monday though Thursday if you need to get in and out.

 

Never go during Spring break or any other time that kids are out of school. I learned this the hard way last week. It can ruin even a weekday trip.

Guest's picture
Kate

I once made it in and out of the IKEA in 10 minutes.  I knew exactly what I wanted - went in downstairs and grabbed it off the shelf.  I also found that it is a good time to go around dinner time on the weekends.  Usually people have gone early in the morning and are starting to leave around 4PM.

Guest's picture
Gooch

I would also add - if you live close enough, make it two trips - one to mark down everything you need in a leisurely way, and another to get in and out as quick as possible. Also gives you a chance to go home and re-measure.

Guest's picture
Gooch

One more thing - the Ikea at White Marsh in Baltimore has posted clocks that show, with green/yellow/red, the least crowded times @ the store.

Guest's picture
Samantha Dreiling

This is so true. The first time I went to Ikea, I ended up wandering around for about 3 hours totally overwhelmed. I just wish someone had told me these things before I went.

Guest's picture
Michele

Great tips!  I love Ikea, but we call it the "Evil Swedish Furniture Store".  The nearest one to me is in Pittsburgh, about 100 miles from me but we make it a day trip.  I usually spend 2-3 hours in the store, buy a few things in the marketplace, and mostly just look.  Shopping Ikea is differnt than shopping just about anywhere else.  It has to be seen to be understood.

Guest's picture
Christy

Here's my tip.  Go in the Exit, thru the checkout area.  They don't like you to do this, but you can.  The benefit is that you can hit the clearance/open box area first, since that is near the checkout.  See if there are any bargins to be had.  Additionally, if you go this way you will be at the warehouse level and can skip the whole showroom madness.  This is good if you just want to look at something like lamps, or my favorite area, plants.

Guest's picture
Guest

My survival tip is NOT to go alone if you shop at the IKEA in Hicksville on Long Island.

I don't know if all IKEAs are like this but this one doesn't allow you to take your cart to your car. If I can't take all my purchases to my car in one trip, who is going to watch my cart?!

 

Guest's picture
Guest

now we just need a survival guide on how to assemble all of the IKEA furniture!!! that can be a bigger headache than the store

Guest's picture
Guest

My husband is putting the Expedit bookshelf together right now...I am steering clear until the cursing stops!

Carlos Portocarrero's picture

Just wanted to report back that I went back last night with the aisle and bin numbers where the stuff I wanted to buy was, went straight there, got it all, and got it out. Not too bad on a Sunday night right before closing. I was in and out in 20 minutes. And my friend had a hot dog, which he says was awesome.

Guest's picture
Christy

Okay, I have another tip after having gone to Ikea recently. Bring your own shopping bags! They do not supply bags, so when you checkout with 15 different items you better bring something to carry them back to your car. I always forget this. Last week my daughter and I were struggling to carry the pillows, plants, ackward flat pack boxes (and more) the mile back through the parking lot to the car.

Guest's picture
ht54bubba

For assembly instructions, try ikeafans.com. They have PDFs of the assembly instructions for virtually every product IKEA sells and you can search the forums for guidance on your particular product. I always look up the assembly instructions BEFORE I buy a piece so I know what I'm getting into. This site is a HUGE help if you do an IKEA kitchen but also great for other product resources.

For the more DIY creative types, there is a whole counterculture of IKEA hacking - taking standard IKEA products and repurposing or recreating them. Check out ikeahackers.net for fabulous creative examples.

Guest's picture
Guest

Just finding this; great tips! Love the merchandise and price point; hate the shopping experience. I totally agree with avoiding weekends, but if you live more than 30 minutes from an Ikea like I do and work a day job, it's pretty tough to muster up the time and energy after work. Not to mention dealing with unfathomable Chicago area rush hour traffic to get there and then having to unload heavy items after 9pm. We don't have much choice but to go this weekend; I think we'll try to get there around five, maybe people will have started leaving for dinner?

Hitting the warehouse first is also HIGHLY recommended; I've done that several times and I've been enough times to have a general idea of where everything is located. And you can check the As Is section right away before your brain goes to mush. I've also been alone - definitely not recommended. The Schaumburg IL store also doesn't allow you to take the flat beds to your car. Why they would design the store that way and basically give a big middle finger to single visitors is beyond me. And yes, bring your own bags, or better yet plastic totes!