19 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of IKEA Employees

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Chances are good you have a piece of IKEA furniture in your home. Perhaps you’re even sitting on an IKEA couch, reading at an IKEA desk, or lying in an IKEA bed right now. The Swedish company is the world’s largest furniture retailer, selling billions of dollars worth of goods each year, from BILLY bookcases to GLIMMA tealights. Its massive blue-and-yellow stores are kept well-stocked and running smoothly thanks to the efforts of more than 194,000 employees (or as IKEA calls them, “coworkers”) across the globe. We spoke with a few of them about what it’s like to work for one of the world’s most recognizable retail stores.

1. THE IKEA PATHWAY HAS A CODE NAME.

It’s no secret IKEA’s maze-like showrooms are designed to take shoppers through every department, from the kitchen to the textiles, making sure they lay eyes on as many goods as possible. "One could describe it as if IKEA grabs you by the hand and consciously guides you through the store in order to make you buy as much as possible," Johan Stenebo, an IKEA veteran, wrote in his book, The Truth About IKEA.

The winding walkway is known lovingly among employees as the “Long Natural Path” or the “Long Natural Way.” According to a 2011 New Yorker article by Lauren Collins, the pathway is supposed to curve every 50 feet to prevent shoppers from getting bored.

2. THERE ARE SECRET SHORTCUTS ...

Need to get to bedding but don’t want to walk through textiles, bathroom, and living room first? Stuck on the top floor but need a quick way to ground level? Take a shortcut.

There are multiple quick routes through the store, both for safety reasons and stocking reasons, and they’re open to the public. But they’re not advertised, so you’ll need a keen eye for secret passageways. Often they take the form of unmarked service doors.

“If you know where to look, you’ll find them,” says Paula, who worked at an IKEA store in Houston for a year. At her store, there was a shortcut route that started with an unmarked door near the escalators. “Nobody’s going to stop you unless it explicitly says ‘employees only,’ but other than that you can open doors and you’d be amazed,” she says.

“I love IKEA, but sometimes you just need to get in and out in like 20 minutes,” says Marie, who worked at IKEA for 11 years. If that’s the case, just ask an employee to give you the quickest route to your destination and they’ll point you to the nearest shortcut.

3. ... BUT DON’T GET TOO USED TO THEM.

“They’re always changing,” says Paul Robertson, who worked for 10 years at IKEA Canada. “They used to change them fairly frequently because we had a lot of repeat business, so customers would get familiar with the shortcuts and know how to zip through. After a while they would change the shortcuts to force people to go around the long way again.”

4. THE WALLS MOVE.

Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

According to Paula, the partitions that enclose IKEA’s various showrooms are on rollers and can be moved. “They have a lock on them so people can’t randomly move them,” Paula says. “At the end of the night we move all the walls out of the way so we have a straight shot to where the trash is.” This also makes it easier to remodel the display rooms.

5. CUSTOMERS SOMETIMES BUY ENTIRE ROOMS.

Speaking of the display rooms, occasionally customers will decide they like an entire room so much, they’ll order it as-is. “There have been people that come in and see a room and like everything there and they take it,” Paula says.

6. THERE'S AN “OPEN THE WALLET” SECTION.

NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

IKEA stores are littered with piles of small, practical items that are so cheap they’re hard to pass up. These areas are called the “Open The Wallet” sections. “There, an abundance of cheap goods—flowerpots, slippers, lint rollers—encourages the customer to make a purchase, any purchase, the thinking being that IKEA shoppers buy either nothing or a lot,” Collins writes.

According to Rob, a two-year IKEA veteran, this area was located at the bottom of the stairs on the second floor at his store. “It’s basically impulse buys,” he says. “It’s a lot of very cheap items, things that look practical, useful, something you didn’t realize you wanted.” The next thing you know you’re shoving five packs of tea candles and a bunch of plastic hangers into your yellow shopping bag, when all you really came in for was a desk lamp.

7. THERE'S A REASON THEY PILE THOSE BINS SO HIGH.

Another method for getting people to add things to their bags is known internally as the “bulla bulla” technique. Big bins are stuffed to the point of overflowing with hundreds of items “to create the impression of volume and, therefore, inexpensiveness,” according to Collins.

“One of the big things is the sort of jumbo bin, they love that,” says Robertson. “If stock starts running low there, fill it back up. Pile it high. Customers think they’re getting a deal.”

8. YES, YOU CAN NAP ON THE FURNITURE ...

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

The displays are meant to be touched, tested, and experienced. If you want to curl up on an IKEA couch or sprawl out on the bed, go for it. “You are allowed to sit on the beds,” says Paula, “but if you’ve been there for two or three hours, we have to wake you up.”

This is a particularly well-documented phenomenon in China, where shoppers have been photographed snoozing all over the showroom. “We don’t see it as a problem,” IKEA spokesman Josefin Thorell told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re happy people feel at home in our stores. Certainly, it entails a little extra work for the staff, purely practically. But on the other hand, if customers try out our furniture and like it, we can sell an extra mattress or two.”

9. ... BUT YOU PROBABLY DON’T WANT TO.

According to Jana, an IKEA employee in Texas, the pillows on the display beds get swapped out once a month at her store, and the pillowcases only get changed when they are visibly dirty. The same goes for blankets and duvet covers. “I changed a bunch of duvet covers yesterday because from people touching the same corner every day, it looked dingy,” she says. “If we see something and think it looks gross, it needs to be changed.”

10. THEY WISH YOU’D STOP OPENING THINGS.

NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

“Customers will open anything and everything,” says Jana. “Everything in that store, we have on display. You can touch it, feel it, lay your face on it, but for some reason they’ll open the package and then leave it there. What they don’t understand is when they open certain things, we can’t resell them, so we have to scan them out.”

11. THEY’RE TRAINED NOT TO OFFER HELP.

If you’re the passive-aggressive type of shopper, you’re bound to be disappointed at IKEA. Employees are given specific instructions to let the customers come to them if they need assistance. “You were supposed to only help customers if they asked you for it,” says Rob. “We were told that’s a very Scandinavian way of how stores work.” The same rule applies in the warehouse, where customers are expected to find and lift their own items unless it’s obvious they need assistance.

12. THE BOOKS IN THE SHOWROOM OFTEN COME FROM EMPLOYEES’ OWN LIBRARIES.

IKEA’s sample rooms often feature towering bookshelves, but empty shelves aren’t particularly inviting. So, employees are asked to bring books from their own collection to fill the blank space. “All of that was stuff we owned,” Rob says. Usually they were asked to bring books that matched a certain color scheme. And you couldn’t bring in anything racy. “You had to use your common sense,” Rob says. “Nothing pornographic or anything.”

13. THE MOST POPULAR ITEMS ARE …

The BILLY bookcase and the LACK table. The POÄNG chair, MALM bed, KALLAX shelving units, RENS sheepskin rug, and EKTORP sofa are some of the other top picks.

14. THE SERIAL NUMBERS CAN TELL YOU A LOT.

According to Robertson, there’s some rhyme and reason to the eight-digit code linked to each IKEA item. “While I was there, it was that the last two numbers would tell you what color the item was. So let’s say it ended in 40, it was blue. That would mean the 4 range was blue, so 41 might be light blue and 42 would be dark blue.”

Many of the names have meaning, too. According to Collins, “traditionally, the names of IKEA’s bookcases derive from different occupations; curtains are given names from mathematics; and bathroom products are named for lakes and rivers.”

15. THEY WITNESS A LOT OF ARGUMENTS.

“If you really wanna test your relationship, go through IKEA and buy something,” says Jana. “I guess they just get stressed and overwhelmed that the store’s so big. I had a couple trying to make a decision on a rug and he was mad and she was on verge of tears. Then we were out of the rug they wanted, which made it even worse.”

Lovers' quarrels are so common in the store that at least one psychologist told the Wall Street Journal she has her bickering clients construct the NORNÄS coffee table as a relationship-building exercise. Janice Simonsen, design spokeswoman for IKEA U.S., also told the paper she spent five years as a furnishings consultant and created a list of guidelines specifically for couples planning a trip to the store.

16. THEY SPEAK IN CODE.

JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

When “Code 22” comes over the intercom, it’s a distress call from the cash lanes. “We usually hear it around rush hour or on weekends,” says Jana. “It means the cash lanes are backed up into the warehouse. Anyone in the store who is register-trained has to go to the front and help.”

If a lost kid is wandering the store (which happens a lot), Jana says managers use “Code 99” to put all employees on alert. “There are so many wardrobes to hide in or bed skirts to hide under,” says Marie. “If a kid really wanted to be hidden it would not be too hard.”

17. THINGS GET WILD AFTER HOURS.

“At the end of night, they’d open all the walls and we’d have a big empty space and there would be pallet jack races,” Paula recalls.

And there’s perhaps no better place to play hide-and-seek than in a massive, multiple-story maze stuffed with nooks and crannies. “On closing shifts, one guy I worked with would always manage to have me distracted, then he’d go hide in the store,” says Robertson. “So I would have to finish up tasks, walk through the store knowing somewhere along the way he would jump out at me, and he got me all the time.”

18. THEY GET GREAT CHRISTMAS GIFTS.

IKEA is known for having good employee perks, including its end-of-year gifts, which range from electronics to plane tickets. “The first year I worked there they gave out bikes,” says Rob. “This year they gave out Rokus.” Paula says her store gave employees who had been specially recognized by their coworkers the chance to win plane tickets to anywhere in the world.

19. PINTEREST DRIVES SALES.

Employees can tell when an item has been featured in a viral Pinterest project because it sells out quickly. “There was one specific spice rack we were constantly sold out of,” says Paula. “Someone had gone on Pinterest and said you can paint it and make it a bookshelf for picture books for toddlers. We had to tell people, ‘If you’re here for the spice rack, we don’t have it.’” (For reference, it’s called the BEKVÄM spice rack.)

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

SIGN UP TODAY: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping Newsletter!

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

10 Secrets of Epidemiologists

Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
Epidemiologists are fans of charts.
metamorworks/iStock via Getty Images

Unless you know an epidemiologist or are one yourself, those “disease detectives” might not have occupied a very large portion of your brain. Last year, that is. Now, with the coronavirus pandemic at the top of mind—and at the top of so many headlines—there’s a good chance you’re at least aware that epidemiologists study diseases.

To be more specific, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines epidemiology as “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events in specified populations, and the application of this study to the control of health problems.” So what exactly does this mean? Mental Floss spoke with a few epidemiologists to shed light on what they do, how they do it, and which germ-friendly foods they avoid at the buffet.

1. People often mistake epidemiologists for skin doctors.

Since the word epidemiologist sounds like it might have something to do with epidermis (the outer layer of skin), people often think epidemiology is some offshoot of dermatology. At least, until the coronavirus pandemic.

“Prior to that, no one knew what I did. Everyone was like ‘Oh you’re an epidemiologist—do you work with skin?’” Sarah Perramant, an epidemiologist at the Passaic County Department of Health Services in New Jersey, tells Mental Floss. “I would be rich if I had a dollar for every time I got asked if I work with dermatologists.”

2. Epidemiologists don’t discover a new disease every day.

Though some epidemiologists do look for unknown diseases—certain zoonotic epidemiologists, for example, surveil wildlife for animal pathogens that might jump to humans—most are dealing with diseases that we’re already familiar with. So what do they do every day? It varies … a lot.

Epidemiologists who work at academic or research institutions undertake research projects that help determine how a disease spreads, which behaviors put you at risk for it, and other unknowns about anything from common colds to cancer. But it’s not just about devising experiments and studying patient data.

“I like to tell my friends and family that my job is about four different jobs in one,” Dr. Lauren McCullough, an assistant professor in the department of epidemiology at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, tells Mental Floss.

Writing, she says, is “the most important part.” It includes requesting grants, devising lectures and assignments, grading her students’ work, writing about her research, and more. She also sits on admissions committees, reviews other epidemiologists’ studies, and oversees the many people—project managers, data analysts, technicians, trainees, etc.—working on her own research projects.

Those who work in the public health sphere are often monitoring local outbreaks of diseases like the flu, Lyme disease, salmonellosis, measles, and more. If you test positive for a nationally notifiable disease (any of about 120 diseases that could cause a public health issue), the CDC or your state health department sends your electronic lab report to the epidemiologist in your area, who’s responsible for contacting you, finding out how you got sick, and telling local officials what steps to take in order to prevent it from causing an outbreak.

3. Epidemiologists have to make some uncomfortable phone calls.

At least the person on the other end can't see your expression of consternation.Andrea Piacquadio, Pexels

Epidemiologists sometimes have to ask pretty personal questions about drug use and sexual activity when trying to figure out how someone got infected, and not everyone is happy to answer them. “I’ve gotten hung up on many a time,” Dr. Krys Johnson, an assistant professor in Temple University’s department of epidemiology and biostatistics, tells Mental Floss.

Some simply aren’t willing to accept that they might have been exposed to a disease without knowing it. After several employees at a certain company tested positive for COVID-19, for example, Perramant started calling the rest of the workers to tell them to go into quarantine; this way, she could prevent sick people who weren't yet showing symptoms from spreading the disease without knowing it. But not everybody was open to her advice. “They would just swear up and down, ‘I haven’t been in touch with anybody who’s positive, please don’t call me again,’” Perramant says.

But there are plenty of cooperative people, too, especially victims of foodborne or diarrheal illnesses. “They really want to know where they got sick because they’re so miserable that they never, ever want to deal with that again,” Johnson explains. Parents of sick kids are also generally forthcoming, since they want to keep their kids healthy in the future. And then there are those who don’t have any problem spilling their secrets to a stranger.

“There was one woman who was very memorable,” Johnson says. “I called her about her Hepatitis C, and she was like, ‘Oh, honey, I did drugs back in the ’80s. That’s where I got my Hepatitis C. I pop positive every time!’”

4. Epidemiologists deal with a lot of rejection.

Public health epidemiologists have to learn to just shrug off all the rude tones and dial tones, and epidemiologists in academic settings need thick skin for different reasons.

“There’s just a lot of rejection,” McCullough says. “‘That idea isn’t good enough; this paper isn’t good enough; you’re not good enough.’ That is just a resounding thing. There’s a high bar for science; there’s a high bar for federal funding; and it takes a lot to cross that bar. So in the academic setting at these top-tier institutions, you really just have to have a thick skin.”

5. Just because epidemiologists' guidelines change doesn't mean they're wrong.

Sometimes, McCullough explains, the story of a disease can change over the course of one study. When you look at the first 100 people in a 10,000-person study, you’ll see one story emerge. By the time you’ve seen 1000 people, that story looks different. And after you’ve seen the data from all 10,000 people, the original story might not be accurate at all.

Usually, epidemiologists can complete the whole study of a disease and draw conclusions without the world clamoring for half-baked answers. But with a brand-new, highly infectious disease like COVID-19, epidemiologists don’t have that luxury. As they’ve learned more about how the pathogens spread, how long they can survive on surfaces, and other factors, they’ve changed their recommendations for safety precautions. Everyone else in the world of epidemiology expected this to happen, but the general public did not.

“If we say something this week that contradicts what we said last week, it’s not that we were wrong,” Johnson says. “It’s that we learned something between those two time points.”

6. Being an epidemiologist would be easier if people kept better track of their behavior.

Often, people omit vital information about how they got exposed to an illness because they just don’t remember all the details. You could easily recall devouring a few slices of the decadent chocolate cake your mom baked for your birthday last Friday, but you might not be able to name every bite of food you ate on a random Thursday three weeks ago.

“People aren’t telling us the whole truth, but it’s not that they’re being intentionally obtuse,” Johnson explains. “With recall bias, unless there’s a reason for us to really remember, we’re not going to remember everything we actually ate.”

This has made it especially difficult to trace an aerosolized disease like COVID-19.

“All my friends going into the Fourth of July were like, ‘Should we have a get-together?’” Perramant says. “And I said, ‘You can have people over, but you better take an attendance list. You better have a little spreadsheet on Google Drive that has every person’s name and their phone number, so that when one person tests positive and gets sick this week, when I call you, you will be able to give me that information like that.’”

7. Epidemiologists have reason to be wary of buffets, cruise ships, mayonnaise, and cubed ham.

It's all fun and games until someone eats warm egg salad.Tim Meyer, Unsplash

Infectious disease epidemiologists may have accepted that germs are a part of life, but they also know where those germs like to congregate.

“I don’t go to buffets, I have never been on a cruise ship and I don’t intend to, I’m super conscientious when I fly,” Johnson says. “And I’m really aware of whenever mayonnaise-based things are put out at family functions. If you’re ever at a potluck and people come down sick, the first thing people say [they ate] is potato salad or egg salad, because mayonnaise can spoil so quickly.”

“[Cubed ham] is one particular microbe’s very favorite thing to multiply on, so if you’re gonna have ham, make it a whole ham,” she says.

8. Teaching people is a really rewarding part of being an epidemiologist.

In addition to actually leading lectures in the classroom, academic epidemiologists also work extremely closely with their students on research projects; McCullough estimates that she’s in contact with hers at least once a day when they’re collaborating on a study.

“To work with someone so closely, and to watch them progress as a scientist and as a person, and then to have to let them go and send them out into the world, I find that very rewarding,” McCullough says of her trainees. “As a scientist in an academic institution, there’s not a whole lot of immediate gratification. Our papers get rejected, our grants don’t get funded, but the trainees are always a source of immediate gratification for me, so I hold them close to my heart.”

Epidemiologists in other spheres have teaching opportunities, too. When a community experiences a disease outbreak, public health epidemiologists like Perramant are responsible for helping the general public understand what they can do to prevent the spread.

“I like to teach kids about infectious disease and infection prevention for what’s relevant to them. We’ve had a couple of large outbreaks at summer camps, and last summer I put together a training for camp counselors,” Perramant says. “That’s always a part of my job that I really love.”

9. Epidemiologists have a unique understanding of racial disparities.

At this point, it's exceptionally clear that COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting people of color in the U.S. They're more likely to be exposed to it, they have less access to testing, and the preexisting conditions that place them at a higher risk can be the result of systemic racism. When these trends started to become apparent, McCullough got flooded with phone calls asking why. Her answer? This isn’t new. As she’s seen in her work as a breast cancer researcher, Black women are more likely to die of that disease than their white counterparts, and similar health disparities exist across the board.

McCullough explains that the general public is finally realizing what epidemiologists already knew: That poor disease outcomes in minority, low-income, and rural populations aren’t because of anything those people are doing on an individual level. Instead, it’s a result of systemic issues that keep them from leading financially comfortable, healthy lifestyles with access to healthcare and other resources.

“It’s not just COVID—it’s almost every single chronic and infection ailment that’s out there,” McCullough explains. “So this is a real opportunity for people to step back and take an assessment of where we are in terms of our healthcare system, and what we’re doing so that everybody has equitable outcomes. Because people shouldn’t die just because they live in a rural area, or just because they’re poor, or just because they’re Black or Hispanic.”

10. They've had to deal with a lot of “armchair epidemiologists” lately.

Until this year, epidemiologists had to suffer through people mistaking them for dermatologists. Now, during the coronavirus pandemic, people finally know at least a little about their jobs. In fact, people are so confident in their newfound epidemiological knowledge that many are fancying themselves experts on the subject.

“At the beginning of 2020, there were like 500 epidemiologists, and now there are about 5 million. Everybody thinks they’re an epidemiologist,” McCullough says. “There’s a science to it, and it’s a science that requires training. We went to school for a really long time to be doctorally trained epidemiologists.”

It’s not just about advanced degrees, either. Beyond that, you need years of firsthand experience to grasp all the nuances of understanding methods, interpreting data, translating your findings into recommendations for the general public, and so much more. In short, you can’t just decide you’re an epidemiologist.

Perramant has her own analogy for the recent influx of self-proclaimed epidemiologists: “It’s like armchair psychology. Poolside epidemiology now is a thing.”