With no plans one Saturday, Zhang Xin told his wife, son and mother to wear something smart and hop into the family sedan. He could have taken them to the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, but he decided on another popular destination -- IKEA.
Riding an escalator past a man lying on a display bed with a book opened on his belly, the clan sauntered into the crush of visitors squeezing onto the showroom path, bumping elbows and nicking ankles with their yellow shopping trolleys.
Zhang said the family needed a respite from the smog and a reliable lunch.
“We just came here for fun,” said the 34-year-old office manager. “I suppose we could have gone somewhere else, but it wouldn’t have been a complete experience.”
Welcome to IKEA Beijing, where the atmosphere is more theme park than store.
When the Swedish furniture giant first opened here in 1999, it hoped locals would embrace its European brand of minimalism. A decade later, Beijingers have done just that. Perhaps too much.
Every weekend, thousands of looky-loos pour into the massive showroom to use the displays. Some hop into bed, slide under the covers and sneak a nap; others bring cameras and pose with the decor. Families while away the afternoon in the store for no other reason than to enjoy the air conditioning.
Visitors can’t seem to resist novelties most Americans take for granted, such as free soda refills and ample seating. They also like the laid-back staffers who don’t mind when a child jumps on a couch.
Purchasing anything at Yi Jia, as the store is called here, can seem like an afterthought.
“It’s the only big store in Beijing where a security guard doesn’t stop you from taking a picture,” said Jing Bo, 30, who was looking for promising backdrops for a photograph of his girlfriend.
The store’s success can be traced, in part, to how grounded it is in the capital’s zeitgeist. At a time when home ownership is more within reach and incomes are rising, IKEA offers affordable, modern furniture to an emerging middle class clamoring to be bai ling, or white collar.
It doesn’t hurt either that the understated style is a satisfying departure from, say, the faux French imperial designs favored by the older nouveaux riches and gaudy hotels.
“Our values are changing,” said Lizzy Hou, 25, a university graduate who moved to Beijing in May from neighboring Hebei province for a teaching job.
“We want to be modern. I think IKEA stands for a kind of lifestyle. People don’t necessarily want to buy it, but they want to at least experience it.”
Imagining the possibilities here is one of the reasons Bai Yalin drove an hour and a half from her apartment to spend a day at the store with her 7-year-old son and two teenage nieces. There are few other indoor spaces, she said, where she can entertain the children free on an oppressive summer afternoon.
Bai mapped out a five-hour outing. First, they had hot dogs and soft ice cream cones at noon. Then they enjoyed a long rest lounging on the beds. Bai kicked off her sandals and sprawled out on a Tromso bunk bed. The 36-year-old homemaker made herself comfortable and even answered passing shoppers’ questions about the quality of the mattress.
“It’s soft and a great buy at this price,” she told a young woman, pointing to a dangling price tag.
After that, Bai and her family took group pictures. By 5 p.m., it was time for another meal, so they headed to the cafeteria and ate braised mushrooms with rice.
Bai and her husband, a clerk at a heating company, have bought plates and cups at IKEA, but what they’d really like one day is to rid themselves of their clunky old Chinese furniture and bring on the do-it-yourself particleboard.
“Today we didn’t plan to buy anything, just eat and rest,” Bai said.
Many others arrive with the same intentions, sometimes bringing a book to read on a bouncy Poang armchair or carrying stuffed toys for their children to play with on a mattress. For the midday squatters, the abundance of seating is no small detail in a country of 1.3 billion where nabbing a subway or bus seat is practically a blood sport.
The store’s nerve center is the cafeteria. The lunch hour is an endurance contest. Hungry customers pace the dining room balancing overflowing trays, ready to pounce the second a table becomes available.
Beijingers have scarfed down their fair share of Swedish meatballs. Most, however, seem to favor Chinese food such as marinated pork belly with tofu.
It was the prospect of a satisfying and inexpensive meal that brought Luo Jing and her mother, sister and boyfriend into IKEA for the first time one Saturday. The group was resting in the sofa section, each carrying waxy paper cups worn in by one soda refill after another.
“We’ve heard a lot about IKEA but never came,” said Luo, 23. “I like the simplicity. My mom liked the food. We’ll hang out for a while.”
Though frustrated, IKEA executives hope browsers like Luo will eventually turn into buyers. That’s why they don’t shoo anyone away for sleeping. It’s the promise of China’s middle class that has girded their investment here. The privately owned company operates seven stores in China, though there have been indications that profit remains elusive.
“The brand awareness is great, but the question is, how do we get people to open up their wallets and spend money?” said Linda Xu, a company spokeswoman who rolled her eyes when she came upon a trio of slumbering customers.
When Wal-Mart and the French supermarket chain Carrefour entered China in the 1990s, many flocked to the new stores just to look and touch. Now millions of Chinese shop there every day.
IKEA has the added challenge of copycats. Brazen customers are known to come in with carpenters armed with measuring tapes to make replicas. Zhang, the office manager visiting with his family, said he bought a TV table and a couch elsewhere that looked just like IKEA furniture.
“Why spend so much money when you can have the same thing cheaper?” he said.
Others take pictures of the displays to learn how to decorate their homes.
“I never knew you could just screw a shelf onto the wall,” said Fan Haiying, 29, contemplating how to store her books and photographs. “Traditional Chinese furniture always needs a cabinet door.”
Then there are the amateur photographers who revel in the store’s ambience. To them, consumerism never looked so fine through a viewfinder.
A group of university graduates recently donned caps and gowns for photographs by the checkout aisles as if to capture the moment they matriculated to the middle class.
On another day, He Peng showed up with his compact Sony digital camera, which he uses to snap Beijing’s modern landmarks. He shot the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and the Apple Store in a tony outdoor shopping mall, then set his sights on IKEA.
“There’s so much great stuff here,” said He, 23. “I didn’t know where to start.”
He photographed his friends beating each other with stuffed toys. Then he methodically went through the store, snapping away at beds, kitchen counters and even the extra-long hot dogs at the snack bar.
He posted the photos on his blog, at photo.blog.sina.com.cn/biohazardhp.
His caption above a shot of IKEA products reads, “I don’t need to buy them because I have pictures.”