Maze Misery: IKEA and Stew Leonard’s

Retailers who purposely turn their stores into labyrinths

We needed a picture light, just a little fixture that attaches to the wall and hangs over a picture.

No big deal. Or is it?

First we went to a massive Lowe’s—endless aisles that vanish seemingly to infinity.

A cheerful greeter at the front door directed us to the electrical aisle.

We could not find what we wanted.

Then we asked a Lowe’s employee who summoned help. After a few minutes the electrical department guy came. Very nice, but still no dice.

“Try IKEA,” were his parting words. Luckily, IKEA is three stores away.

Why IKEA Is a Buyer’s Nightmare
We are buyers, not shoppers. Living in a 16-foot-wide row house in Center City Philadelphia means no room exists for “stuff.” When we need something, we go for it.

If something catches our fancy on the way out, we’ll pick it up and take it to the register along with the thing we came for.

But with five columns a week, clients and incessant correspondence with readers, I don’t have time to dawdle.

No one greeted us at IKEA. We had to forage around to find an employee and told her our need.

She let us in through a shortcut and pointed the way to electrical.

IKEA Is a Horror Scene
The Brits love mazes—seven-foot-high hedges designed to confuse the hell out of the suckers who enter them. Sometimes they wind up screaming for help because they are so scared they have to relieve themselves.

Same thing with IKEA—myriad aisles that end in a wall full of merchandise of no interest, forcing you to retrace your steps.

Purposely misleading signage guarantees the buyer will remain totally lost.

Quite simply the greedy Swedes want to force all customers to traverse every inch of the store—all two or three floors. The upshot: Shoppers arrive at cash registers with a shopping cart overflowing with mod crap to further junk up the house.

Denny Hatch is the author of six books on marketing and four novels, and is a direct marketing writer, designer and consultant. His latest book is “Write Everything Right!” Visit him at

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  • Tim Orr

    Good afternoon, Denny!

    “Exit signs at IKEA mean exit to another department.” Really? That’s illegal most places. (I know this because once, I had to install signs that said “Not an Exit” on doors that merely led to another room in a factory.)

    Also, somewhat like Peter Hochstein, I’ve gotten into the habit of checking both Ebay and Amazon first for out-of-the-ordinary stuff. Boatloads of listings for “picture lights” on both.

    Tim Orr

  • Rex Nelson

    I wish folks would begin to notice that IKEA is in the business of fleecing the public. Organized as a non-profit, they are not paying the taxes that the rest of us are paying to keep our roads and bridges intact, the streets safe and our borders secure.

  • GG Callihan

    I’m with you on this! It’s a tough one unless you have an hour or two to kill after dropping kids off somewhere, but NEVER if you really need something. You’ve gotten several good posts on ways that I shop now, but let me add Amazon–they have a great selection of both cordless and with cord picture lights. Good luck!

  • Chris Bensson

    We live about 45 miles from the nearest IKEA. Our daughter got an IKEA bed and eventually decided that everything else in her room should come from IKEA. No problem there, I guess – it does match and look nice.

    So one day she decides she needs the matching dresser NOW. She and her mom go online and do a check for the item at the “local” IKEA and it shows 8 units in stock.

    Can’t wait for the weekend, nope, gotta go tonight after work, and I have to drive because we need the truck and it’s a stick. Still no problem, though not my first choice for a Thursday evening.

    We get there, we know they’ve got it, the website told us what bin to pick it out of, but the 14 year old wants to go through the maze because “it’s so much fun, Dad!”

    An hour later, we’re in the warehouse looking at an empty bin – they still show 8 in stock, but their inventory is wrong. Staff was very helpful, checked the receiving dock and everything, which took about 20 minutes.

    So, 3 1/2 hours and 5 gallons of gas later, we get back home, daughter in tears.

    (They were supposed to come in on Saturday for real, but her mom actually drove her to the store an hour further away the next night and managed to fit it in my Toyota.)

    And that’s what I call “My IKEA Story.”

  • Peter Hochstein


    Choosing an appropriate product and buying it without getting lost in miles of aisles is why God invented mail order and then told Al Gore to invent the Internet. For one example out of many, you could point your browser here:–_-Core-Picture-_-Picture+Lamps+e&sourceid=SEGOO100430-0011&gclid=CM-qpcmp_L8CFWwQ7AodfRcA9w

  • John

    The original IKEA store in the Chicago area draws from states away. And is busy as can be. Families apparently make a day out of visiting it. Meat balls and other treats keep the energy levels up.

    I’ve been delighted to live near it and be able to visit and have learned that it works best when one actually walks the entire route. Many a pleasant amount of time spent with someone who’s in town or headed off to college or has a new apartment to furnish. We start at the top usually and as we pass thru the various departments – if we don’t identify something specific to buy – the ideas flow freely.

    A great way to connect with someone. Who would have thought you could do so in a giant store?

  • Thomas (Tom) Smith, III

    Great example of why I go to Ace before every entering a Home Depot or Lowes.

    Ace has someone greet me at the door, I show them what I need, they take me to it and I check out.

    This is how SMBs compete, and win, against big box stores and internet retailers.

    Customer service is the key to winning. Simplify customers’ lives, save them time, they’ll be with you for life.

  • Kim

    For your next excursion, skip the electrical aisle, and ask for the lighting section, though I agree with your valid point.

    I spent miserable hours in Lowes, Menards, Home Depot and the like last weekend, comparison shopping washing machines… all of whom carried the exact same models, at the exact same prices, give or take $10-$20.

    I’m not a shopper either. I can think of far more pleasant occupations for my limited spare time, and who needs more uneccessary clutter?

    The only upside at these labyrinth stores is that washing machines are so large, that they can’t hide them.

  • Shopper

    You are right about Stews, as we call it locally. Did you notice the pictures showing customers with Stews bags from every remote location in the world? I always wanted to sneak into the Federal Correction Facility in Danbury, CT. where Stew spent this prison time, take a picture showing one of his bags, and mailing the picture to the store.

  • Scott Wheatley

    Ikea are also in the business of union busting. They have locked out employees at our local Ikea for almost 18 months and now they find themselves in a bit of hot water. They are hard nosed business people not just the warm and fuzzy brand they like to promote.

  • Reg Doherty

    1399 results! Knock yourself out, Denny! No gas, no time wasted. Yes, I know, Ebay!!!
    I’m with you re Ikea. I went for a simple TV stand (Plymouth Meeting) and spent 1½ hours trying to escape. However… my bad! I should have known better from prior experiences. I had gone online and knew exactly what Ikea had to offer in stock & location. However, I filled no more in my cart and left pissed off after trying to escape… even though I had exactly what I was looking for!
    Next time, might I suggest you hook onto a store associate and ask, “Very shortest way to registers, please!” Good Clue: Where you enter these labyrinths is right next to where you exit to parking. AND there’s always a connecting door! You’ll also pass right by Ikea’s excellent restaurant foods. So, stop for a bite to eat. Meatballs are great! And a hot dog plus drink for damn near nothing.

  • tony the pitiful copywriter


    I no longer go to Lowes to look for stuff that’s only at Home Depot, nor do I go to Home Depot to look for stuff that’s only at Lowes (the stores are about 3 miles apart in my town). Are they in collusion?

    I have learned to first google the item to see if it exists in the first place. Then I go from there.

    As for IKEA, looks like you’ve figured out why it’s so successful. When we were starting our family we had more time than money, so IKEA made for a great day trip – first to Potomac Mills in VA, then to Charlotte, NC –– but only during their Jan/June Clearance Sales.

    You couldn’t pay me to go back there now, although the meatballs, gentle Swedish coffee and lingonberries beckon me like spirits in a spooky Bergman film…and it’s only two hours to Charlotte from here.

  • Babar

    All of these rants merely prove that the BIG BOX stores are not the best places to shop. If all you sheep would go to your nearest privately owned local hardware store or pharmacy or whatever, you would not only be supporting your community, you would not be suffering the “we have everything” sheep herders corrals.

  • Peter Rosenwald

    Dear Denny,

    If you can copy and paste that into your browser, you can get all the picture lights you could desire.

    As you say, the internet is sheer heaven.