Why IKEA will close all its stores
18 October 2013
I recently moved to a new flat. As always, moving your stuff from one place to another is a pain in the ass. First, you go through all your belongings, discarding everything that you haven’t used for a while and that would find a better home through Craigslist or the Salvation Army. Second, box everything that made it through the first step. Third, move your stuff from point A to point B: carry the boxes into a van, drive to your new place, and, with your back hurting, carry the boxes inside. Fourth, unbox everything and try to fit it all into the limited space that your new flat has.
Phew. At this point you’re probably ready to vouch that you will never move again nor buy any new furniture.
(Moving to another country is a different thing, but ironically I’ve found it to be easier than moving short distances. A backpack full of clothes and a laptop miraculously seems to go a long way.)
All this, however, is about to change; in the future I don’t have to carry that many boxes when moving. In the following prophecy I will tell you why. Let me just get my crystal ball and we’ll get started.
Atoms vs. bits, ownership vs. licensing
Partly to unclutter my life and partly to make moving easier (I’ve noticed that I move around a lot), I’ve turned some of my once physical belongings into digital format. This includes music (hello Spotify), notes (scanning and applications such as Paper), and increasingly also books (Kindle and other e-book formats). Some things, however, don’t fit into digital format that nicely. Clothing, furniture, and kitchenware are the kind of stuff that still today exists in atoms as opposed to bits. And all these atoms are what I had to carry into my new place with my back hurting.
My relation to my atom stuff is one of owning. Once I buy a new shirt, I’m considered the owner of that shirt and the seller has lost all its rights to it. In contrast to the ownership model, my relation to much of my bit stuff is one of licensing. I don’t own the music that I listen to on Spotify or the books that I read on Kindle; Spotify and Amazon license me to use them for compensation (recurring or one-time). Software and other digital products have been sold using this model for ages.
3D printing today is in its infancy. The printers are still expensive, only certain materials can be used, and the size of the objects that can be printed is smallish. Useful applications of the technology are small polymer objects such as toys, architecture models, electronics parts, and eagle beaks. When the technology matures, we can expect a wider variety of materials that can be used, larger print sizes, and lower prices.
With the rise of 3D printing, the licensing model is likely to come to play a larger role in the selling of products that we today acquire using the ownership model. IKEA won’t sell you the ownership to a physical product; they will sell you the license to use their design of a chair, which you will then print out at home or at a print shop around the corner. These licenses can entitle you to one, several, or unlimited printouts. The physical production of mass manufactured items will become decentralized and nature of logistics will change. The distribution of hardware will increasingly become to resemble the distribution of software. For the consumer this is great: it will be just as easy to buy a license to a furniture design from IKEA as from an independent designer working in her mountain cottage in some remote part of the world.
Whether IKEA will be the one to pioneer this model in the furniture business is, of course, a trivial question. What is certain, however, is that you won’t be seeing those blue-and-yellow IKEA stores when this change has taken place. IKEA will either sell the licenses to furniture designs online or they will be killed by someone else who does.
I can already see myself moving in this not-that-far-away-future: When emptying the old apartment, I’ll toss all my belongings into the recycling bin from where they will be recycled to be used as new printing materials. At the new place I’ll just print out everything again. Easy. I like easy.