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Walking the enormous new Ikea in Burbank — all 2,000 steps of it

We sent our curiosity correspondent, Benjamin Crutcher, to the largest Ikea in the United States to see what it is like in person. Read more >>

If you thought the old Ikea in Burbank was a maze, brace yourself for its supersized replacement: a colossal labyrinth nearly twice the size, packed with even more quirkily named furniture and gravy-smothered meatballs. 

At 456,000 square feet, the new Burbank store is the chain’s largest location in the United States. To put that into perspective, navigating the entirety of the old store clocked about 700 steps on my fitness tracker, or about a third of a mile. The new location? Two thousand steps. 

Like most people who have moved and set up house — and did I mention I’m a millennial? — I have spent a lot of time at Ikea, zig-zagging its cavernous aisles for sleek, minimalist Scandinavian designs that wouldn’t break my budget.

So when Ikea announced its new store would open Wednesday, I was there. Along with more than a thousand other people. 

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Many were in surprisingly good spirits after queuing, some as early as the day before, for a crack at the 26 free sofas and 100 free chairs that Ikea was giving away. Shortly before the doors opened at 9 a.m., an employee belted out the national anthem.

Dozens more workers flanked the escalator inside, cheering on the early shoppers and beating a steady drumbeat with white balloon sticks. 

To many shoppers, Ikea serves as a source of design inspiration and also a frustrating maze that frog-marches you through seemingly miles of displays before reaching that one thing you actually came for. That was the case with the old Burbank store, which closed for good Saturday after opening in 1990.

At the new location, built on a 22-acre lot less than a mile from the old store, the layout is similar, but there’s a lot more stuff: All 10,000 items that Ikea sells are carried here, compared with 7,500 at the old store. The restaurant fits 600, more than three times the old store. 

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Even the parking lot is bigger: Instead of sharing with other retailers at the Burbank Town Center, Ikea has allotted space for 1,700 parking spots. That is no small thing to this native Texan, who grew up believing that free parking is an American right, right behind life and liberty, and just above the pursuit of happiness (L.A. quickly taught me otherwise).

The aisles are more spacious and there are additional display rooms (50 versus about 40), including entire apartment mock-ups occupied by imaginary people. In one 376-square-foot pad, a sign written by a fabulously cosmopolitan fake couple waxes enthusiastic about their “minimalist condo” and nights spent theater-hopping and restaurant dining. 

Ikea had been looking to move for a decade, motivated in large part by customer frustrations about the old store — confusing parking, a severely limited loading zone and a general claustrophobia during busy times. 

It felt “very crowded inside,” spokesman Joseph Roth said. “It wasn’t convenient for customers. It’s not as pleasurable as it could be or should be.”

Roth said that wiping away those complaints should more than make up for the extra hoofing required to get around the gargantuan store. He also pointed to layout shortcuts that savvy customers can use to bypass departments — the new store has seven, up from five in the first-generation location. 

The layout rewards loyal customers, he said, who know the way to cut directly to their final destination.

Several shoppers said they hoped to eventually get the hang of the new store, but had a little trouble navigating initially.

“I’ve already gotten lost,” said Arthur Leander, a 34-year-old artist. “It’s huge!”

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The University Park resident said he’d already asked three employees the way to the cash registers; each time, he lost his way again. 

“I almost had the other store memorized,” Leander said. “Now I’m going to do it over again here.”

Ikea isn’t the only retailer that has to contend with how to draw customers into huge retail spaces. 

The average Costco Wholesale Corp. store is about 145,000 square feet, said Richard Galanti, Costco’s chief financial officer. In recent years, the chain has been going bigger and building locations up to 160,000 square feet. 

Galanti said retailers have to be thoughtful about how to treat customers inside large stores. At Costco, displays in the middle section of the store are kept low, so shoppers can see all the way to the back.

The warehouse club’s food samples and seasonal items add a “treasure hunt” element to daily marketing. Costco also doesn’t have signs pointing to where products are, to encourage strolling through more of the store, Galanti said.

“Every merchant would like you to walk every aisle and every side aisle,” he said.

Ikea has clearly done the math and decided that going bigger in Burbank makes sense for the bottom line, retail analysts said. 

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“The majority of people don’t buy furniture, they buy items,” said Britt Beemer, founder of America’s Research Group. “The more items people see, the more they buy.”

However, retailers run the risk of alienating some customers. Out of the people who have stopped shopping at Ikea, 61% said it was because going to the stores was a waste of time, according to a survey conducted by Beemer’s firm. 

“Retailers try to play these games and make you go through the rat maze,” he said. “Consumers hate it,” especially impatient millennials who would rather shop online. 

As a member of the millennial tribe, I’m guilty of that as well. My Ikea consumption is now done almost entirely online. Except for the meatballs. 

shan.li@latimes.com

Twitter: @ByShanLi


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