Could Ikea’s new sustainable shops make it the guardian of the UK high street?

Words by Ruby Gurdon and Helen Hughes
Date 2023-11-21

Ikea is a cultural icon beloved by consumers across the globe. The brand’s flat-pack furniture (and cryptic assembly instructions) are at the heart of many-a-home — and that’s just the start of the experience. The brand seamlessly embeds sustainability within its backroom through to its consumer-facing offering.

This is reflected in Ikea’s recently acquired shopping centre in Brighton, following one in west London last year.

It is truly exciting to see a brand that inspires such consumer affection, signalling that its future is on the fabled British high street. It has a real opportunity to revolutionise what consumers expect from a trip to the high street, blending its flare for creating unique shopping experiences while ensuring sustainability is always at its core.

Taking the pressure off consumers

Offering useful and practical solutions that consumers can easily adopt has generated its credibility in the sustainability space. Ikea doesn’t exhaust energy gushing about initiatives that seem distant or entirely irrelevant to consumer needs or its brand.

The Ikea innovation team works to deliver useful, affordable and sustainable products, making it easier for consumers to make sustainable choices, be it low-energy LED bulbs or water-saving shower heads.

This addresses both a me (saving the individual’s money and time) and a we (contributing to reducing water waste and carbon emissions) problem. The solution requires little thought or a significant behavioural change for the consumer to make a more sustainable purchase choice. Ikea does the heavy lifting, right down to the last detail.

Meanwhile, the store layout isn’t a whimsical add-on to the experience. The strategic open-plan blueprint allows consumers to visualise how they’ll use products in their homes, offering numerous behavioural nudges towards more sustainable habits.

Visualising an Ikea shopping centre

An Ikea shopping centre that stays true to the brand’s ethos will retain the focus on making it easier for consumers to make sustainable choices.

So far, the brand has given little away about its shopping centre design. But a glance at the transformation of the Grade II listed former Topshop Oxford Street building into a reusable store has sent expectations soaring. The unmissable, almost foreboding presence of Ikea’s beacon of sustainability — the blue reusable shopper — on Europe’s busiest shopping streets confirms that the brand plans to keep sustainability at its core.

This is not Ikea’s first foray on to the high street, with previous smaller outlets delivering modest results. However, they did provide a successful litmus test, arming the brand with crucial insights into consumer behaviours on the high street. This intel is a powerful asset for Ikea to leverage. It gives it tangible direction when it creates a shopping centre that accommodates consumer habits as they are now, with behavioural nudges embedded within the experience.

Inspiration beyond its sector

Ikea’s new role as guardian of the UK’s shopping centres gives the brand a unique opportunity to inspire significant change across the wider retail sector. While the brand was isolated on its own sites, its sustainability initiatives captured headlines and wider public interest.

Its #BringBackFriday campaign encouraged consumers to return old furniture to be repaired, upcycled or exchanged for a voucher (where Ikea would take responsibility for recycling the material). This highly visible and timely programme set a blueprint for other brands to follow to make a real impact with any sustainable initiatives. It’s a simple two-step plan: identify your biggest environmental impact and subsequently provide a solution that keeps the consumer engaging with the brand.

As Ikea takes on the landlord mantle, it can advocate for the brands within its shopping centres to take a similar approach to their own environmental impact. We’ll see brands more widely create activations that physically manifest their sustainability credentials, the knock-on effect being that consumers have more opportunities to engage with (and understand) what a brand’s wider sustainable ambitions actually are.

Stoking a green revival

Ikea is tackling the ‘death of the high street’ head-on. It has identified an opportunity to revive our high streets by leaning heavily into its principle of delivering unique and engaging in-store shopping experiences in a welcoming and community-centric environment.

Sustainability for Ikea has become so intrinsic to the brand’s identity its shopping centres will likely become hubs for this purpose. Housing retailers where sustainable initiatives underpin all other brand drivers. Recreating the high street experience, where consumers can easily make choices that are better for the environment.

First published in The Drum.