How to Take Over the World: 4 Recruitment Lessons from IKEA

March 20, 2015

This post was first published on Trafford Judd's profile.

Look around you. Look at the coffee cup you're drinking out of; the chair you're sitting on; the toy your toddler is playing with; the vase that's holding those flowers. Whether you live in Melbourne or Minneapolis, Beijing or Berlin; whether you are a student, professional, new parent or retiree, chances are at least one of these objects will be from IKEA.

Because IKEA has taken over the world.

This recent article published by Forbes reveals some of IKEA's secrets to success. And it turns out, the very strategies that have helped them take over the retail world, can also be applied to the world of recruitment.

1. Know your customers aka candidates

When IKEA first came to the US in 1985, it was a disaster. All their furniture dimensions were in metric, not imperial, so sizes didn't fit rooms and customers had difficulty finding bed linen to fit. They unexpectedly sold out of vases, but drinking glasses remained on the shelves (turns out Americans were using vases as drinking glasses because they liked the larger size). Things were so bad that by 1992, they considered pulling out of the US market completely.

IKEA learnt their lesson and now have an unashamedly obsessive focus on researching their customers, employing techniques such as filming volunteers in their homes as they go about their daily business; and employing anthropologists to identify some fascinating differences - and similarities - of consumers around the world.

Just as the best retailers have an intimate knowledge of their customers, the best recruiters take time to research their candidates. I'll admit that when I was a recruiter responsible for filling highly technical roles, I didn't take the time to truly understand the role, and it had an impact on my success, leading to slower hiring processes and difficulty engaging quality candidates.

You probably won't go so far as filming candidates in their homes, but if you're recruiting for software developers, for example, learning some basic coding might just allow you to speak the same language as the candidates, helping establish rapport and credibility. When I was recruiting for call centre staff, I spent a week on the phones to really understand the role and by extension the sort of people who were likely to be successful, and had improved outcomes as a result.

This technique probably won't work if you're hiring pilots or brain surgeons, so another technique to get to know your candidates is to create a 'persona' for each role you are recruiting for. Go beyond the core job description, and research what successful candidates are likely to be interested in; where they hang out online; what motivates them; what frustrates them; what puts fire in their belly. Give them a name if you like. Then go find them.

What are you doing to get to know your candidates?

2. Air is bad

At IKEA, air is the enemy, as wasted space means increased transportation costs and ultimately, higher prices. The company is obsessed with eliminating excess air and has even been known to create internal 'air hunt' competitions, where employees identify ways of eliminating wasted space (fun fact: this is why IKEA tea lights are now vacuum-packed rather than coming in loose bags).

In a recruitment sense, 'air' can be defined as any wasted time or friction in the candidate experience. There are many elements of 'air' in most recruitment processes, such as clunky application forms, limited interview times, or a lack of feedback as candidates progress. This 'air' drives candidate disengagement, damaging your company brand and your employment brand. The best recruiters are obsessed with removing air through technology, automation and process improvement, in order to provide a seamless experience for candidates.

Finding 'air' in your recruitment process can be done by applying the retail method of mystery shopping: apply for a job within your company and go through the entire process as if you were a candidate. Anything you find frustrating is likely to be felt even more acutely by candidates.

If a mystery-shopping-type approach isn't appropriate, you can survey successful and unsuccessful candidates to gauge their feedback on their experience, and monitor results over time to ensure continuous improvement.

What pockets of air can you identify and eliminate from your recruitment process?

3. Tailor your offering, without losing scale

IKEA is a volume-driven business: their low prices can't be achieved without massive economies of scale. So instead of customising their products for each market, they have found ways to localise the same products, maintaining standardisation while meeting local consumers preferences. Display rooms feature the same products, but are tailored to the local way of living, such as tatami mats in Japan, slanted ceilings in The Netherlands or kimchi refrigerators in South Korea. Catalogues are also localised in accordance with local language, pricing and customs, despite containing largely the same products within them.

Your employment offering can also be tailored to candidate segments without losing the benefits of scale. What inspires a salesperson is likely to be quite different to what excites an accountant, but your employees still need to share a workspace, systems and processes, so it's not practical to completely customise your offering. However, you can still find ways to tailor your employment experience for each employee segment, for example offering bespoke employee benefits, unique recognition schemes or tailored flexible working arrangements. Communicating this localised offering to each employee segment as part of your overall employer brand message will help you engage potential candidates, then you can reinforce it during the recruitment process, delivering a bespoke, yet consistent employee experience.

How are you tailoring your employment offering for different talent segments?

4. Find some breath-taking items

IKEA knows a strong brand is not enough to survive in a competitive market, and have pioneered the concept of breath-taking items (BTIs) to help drive consumer engagement. Their BTIs vary depending on market: a €69 ($77) sofa is breathtaking in Sweden; but in China a 1 RMB (16c) soft serve cone is drawing crowds. The common thread is that BTIs provide a compelling reason for customers to visit IKEA stores, and build a 'price halo' for the whole store.

It's no secret that your employer brand is key to attracting and retaining talent. But it's not enough - you must also find some breath taking items to grab the attention of potential candidates. For some talent segments it might be a leading L&D offering; for others it might be flexible working arrangements; an incredible workspace; best-in-class technology; or simply free beer on a Friday afternoon. Finding some BTIs for your organisation, and actively promoting them throughout the recruitment process, helps bring your EVP to life in a tangible way, raising awareness and driving candidate engagement.

What are your employment BTI's, and how are you promoting them to potential candidates?


IKEA is a true disruptor in the retail space, and it's achieved this through careful research, planning and intelligent customisation. By applying these lessons to your talent acquisition strategy, you can become a more efficient and successful recruiter and eventually, just maybe, take over the world!

What lessons from IKEA will you apply to help transform your recruitment strategy?

* image by Håkan Dahlström

global recruiting trends