How you know you’re in Emilia, Italy… even from inside an IKEA.

I had a rough morning. I think anywhere in the world, a morning spent winding through the labyrinth of an IKEA store can be described as “rough”. I’m positive it’s an orchestrated attempt to attack the consumer from multiple directions. Somewhere in Sweden there’s a well designed room of blonde people eating meatballs and discussing how to best debilitate various consumer groups into subjection.

Parma Ikea - next to Barilla factory

Parma Ikea – next to Barilla factory

I don’t understand how a 2-meter wide path with no forks, no detours, and very few shortcuts can be so disorienting… yet at the same time magical. So many things to look at. So many rooms to explore and drawers to pull open. So many interior design ideas to consider. So many ethical dilemmas to set aside.

There’s this mix of desire, awe, anger, and guilt, all delivered by a little voice whispering in your ear, “Get the Expedit shelf… maybe no one will notice it’s IKEA”.

In my vast IKEA experience (having lived in over 6 cities around the world with one or multiple IKEAS), I can tell you that there are a few slight differences in an Italian IKEA… an Emilian IKEA to be precise:

1. Italian coffee culture supersedes consumerism

First of all,  there are more people in line for a coffee at the bar than in the entire Marketplace section. If you go with Italian friends on an IKEA shopping expedition, it starts at the cafe.

Secondly, the shelf where they stock the French Press coffee makers looks like it hasn’t been touched since the store opened. Meanwhile, the products from every other shelf have been mixed and moved and redistributed around the entire store.

2. Italian communication and traffic patterns pervade

The IKEA employees who are responsible for setting up the mini rooms on the top floor are usually in a state of constant disarray, yelling across the store at each other with hand gestures to match.

When the girl on the PA system announce that the cafe is open for lunch, customers literally leave their full baskets in the middle of aisle and headed up stairs for some traditional Swedish prosciutto Parmigiano. For the next two hours, the store is virtually empty.

After lunch, most people return, enjoying the stroll through the showroom just as they would a stroll down the Via Emilia on a Saturday afternoon – window shopping, but not purchasing much, and arriving at the warehouse check out line with only 3-5 items in hand.

3. Italian fear of advanced machinery overshadows attempts at efficiency

First of all, there is usually only one of the 14 cashier lines open. Then there is the “express” checkout where you can scan your own items (15 items or less) and purchase with a Bancomat or credit card. However, instead of using that, there is a line of 20 people, each with their 3-5 items, waiting for the one open cashier… and an empty express checkout scanning line. Each of those 20 people is shaking their hand at the person in front of them and complaining, “che palle“, that the line is so slow.

As far as I can tell, there is a similar phenomenon going on here as there is at the Autostrade toll booths. I’m pretty sure that almost every single one of those people is paying with a card or at least a Bancomat. Yet none of them want to use the scan-it-yourself machine for some reason. I’d love it if someone could explain this.

Today I had more than 15 items (as a sane person is wont to do on a trip to IKEA, lest you have to return a month later), so I waited in the long line and shook my hand at the person in front of me while listening to the person behind me exclaim, “che palle!“. (I do always try to blend in with the natives!)

An employee helping in the express lane noticed the imbalance and loudly asked the line of customers, “Anyone paying with a card or Bancomat?” No one made any indication one way or the other, so I raised my hand and said, “yes, but I have many more than 15 items”. She says, that’s ok, come on over.

4. Italian ability to work the system

Once I was half-way through scanning my items, everyone who was still in the previous line (watching me from the other side of the line barricade) decided… “hey, that looks pretty easy, let’s go get in that line instead.”

An old woman who I had passed earlier and overheard her say how much she prefers the morning market in the town center to this place, then attempted a bold move. Little signoras are always trying to cut in line, but I think maybe she didn’t understand the concept of the scanning. She stuck her item in front of my scanner while I was putting something in the bag.

20 minutes to sort that one out.

I then got yelled at by the people behind me for having more than 15 items, and the girl who had convinced me to come over there in the first place had scapatta via‘d to avoid getting yelled at by the little signora who didn’t understand why she couldn’t pass her item through the scanner in between my items.

5. … this:

Only in Italy (Emilia to be specific) does an IKEA store celebrate its first year anniversary with a huge cake upon which has been drawn a wheel of Parmigiano- Reggiano, and the guest of honor is a soccer player who then has to construct an IKEA table while everyone watches. (Not joking)

Ikea Parma party


24 thoughts on “How you know you’re in Emilia, Italy… even from inside an IKEA.

  1. I LOVED this post. Just yesterday, we tried to make an especially quick trip to our nearby (an hour away?) IKEA in Bari, cleverly combining it with a trip to visit a friend’s newborn. It was a Sunday afternoon. Need I say more? Everything you described in your post happened to us, but after a moment of utter despair, we worked with the general confusion to enter only the bottom floor, against the tide of entire shopping Italian families, and grab the much-needed item that compelled our trip in the first place. It felt like a competitive event and, well, we won! Fifteen minutes, start to finish. We felt like we needed a serious drink afterwards though, which we did not get at the new baby visit.

  2. Yes this is the Italy I know, On Sunday I was in Ipercoop with Mrs Sensible, we went to the little ticket dispenser and took our ticket with our number for the queue for the deli counter. Two people were served and then the deli lady shouted 143, no response 144 again nothing 145 silence 146 Mrs Sensible shouted que. Just as the deli assistant started to cut some salami for Mrs Sensible, 3 old biddies who had been gossiping suddenly realised that they had tickets 143, 144 and 145. Chaos followed 🙂

  3. We did the Ikea in Pinerolo and left the kids in the playroom Yay.
    we also seem to find this lady everywhere we go, she’s always pushing in and shoving her way through.
    but the good thing is that the food and coffee is far superior to the Ikea in Australia lol x

    • Yes, I must say, IKEA, kudos on the play room idea. Of course, no one in Parma was using it… ya know there’s all the same toys and more upstairs where all the grown ups are!

  4. I’ve read lots of blogposts tagged “culture shock”, but this is the best one. I feel slightly confused and stressed just reading it! But it’s still very funny.

  5. Hi – it makes sense that your IKEA is only one year old. Over in Bologna (the capital of Emilia!) we’re much more IKEA / restaurant / DIY check-out savvy and have over several years grown to understand/appreciate use all these things “intelligently” (or at last as intelligently as you will ever get).
    Try the IKEA in Padova if you have a chance – it’s right next to the autostrada exit (for which I regularly use my telepass..) and the restaurant is HUGE with not a slice of Parmesan in sight!

    • Hey, now, MarkD, don’t rub your Bologna-ness in my face!

      Sitting over there with all your slightly more efficient IKEAs and arcade lined streets full of American expats… You think I haven’t noticed?! You’ve stolen ALL of my compatriots! I went to Bologna for a meeting a couple months ago and heard more American accents than Italian! What the heck?! Are they all there for the University? Can you send a few this way for a chat every once in a while?! 🙂

      (p.s. Thank you very much for the Padova suggestion, but there is NO WAY I am traveling that far for an IKEA. I can hold out until Italy figures out online ordering and shipping.)

        • yeah, I had 2 different friends do that program. I can confirm – quite expensive! But they both have snooty high-paying Inernational Relations jobs now, so I guess it pays off!

          As far as your description of IKEA goers – ha! It was quite a different story in Parma. I was there midweek though. I’d rather die than attempt that on a weekend!

  6. Haha, this is all so true, great post! Last time we were in Ikea near Turin (thankfully quite a while a go now), I noticed that everyone eats very Italian food there. In the UK, it’s meatballs and chips, nothing else, but here in Italy, being in Ikea seems to be no excuse not to have a proper, Italian lunch… parmigiano, prosciutto, pasta, complete with a bottle of wine.

  7. Love this! IKEA really is disorienting, isn’t it? And it feels like time stops in there… you emerge at some point after what only feels like an hour to find that it’s actually five hours later!

    At German IKEAs, it’s all about the meatballs… they actually serve other stuff as well but I only ever see people eating meatballs. Or the hotdogs at the end.

    • I believe the meatballs are an option at the Parma one… I think… but they are hard to locate amid the copious amounts of pork. 🙂

  8. Nice to know that IKEA’s are mostly the same the world over. I’m sure even the configuration of their stores is the same! But it’s funny to hear about the local cultural factors in the shoppers and their shopping habits! Too funny! My husband always complains when he has to construct a piece of IKEA furniture – he tires of looking at the pictures and trying to figure out all the schematics!

  9. This made me laugh so much, especially the part about the signora and the scanner… So typical. You’ve also struck just a little bit of fear into my heart, because I’ve been procrastinating over a much-needed Ikea trip – if an Ikea in Emilia is already pretty chaotic, it’s got to be a complete free-for-all here in Rome!

    • Sara, I seriously could have just died when she did that. I just stood there, staring at her… she continued along as if it were my turn to wait. I took a VERY deep breath and remembered my mother’s words “kill them with kindness”, and slowly started explaining to her what a scanner is. Mamma mia. Good luck in Rome. Although, another commenter suggested this was just a first-year learning curve situation for local residents… (I have my doubts)

  10. Pingback: Expat Vent Alert (E.V.A.) – an early detection warning system | Married to Italy

  11. Also, only in Italy does the kids’ playroom stay open until 9.30 at night… when all kids under the age of 7, which is the cut-off age, should be tucked up in bed by my Anglo-Saxon reckoning. Mind you, it did cross my mind to drop mine off there for some free babysitting while I went out for dinner.
    I have had two very positive experiences in the Bolognese Ikea of late. AND I used online delivery and it worked perfectly. It was very expensive, but then again I ordered a lot of large items and to get them myself would have a) been hellish b) involved hiring a van and c) would have taken me + 1 other person a whole day, so all in all it was definitely worth the price.

    • good to know, Polly, thanks. I haven’t tried the online delivery yet, but I don’t think the armadio that I need will fit in my crappy little Fiat Punto, so I expect I’ll have to try it soon.

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