Ikea was slow to move into online selling due to heavy internal resistance to changing its business model © Bloomberg

Ikea is launching a test to sell its flat-pack furniture on big ecommerce websites in what the owner of its brand calls the biggest change in how it interacts with customers in its 74-year history. 

Torbjörn Lööf, chief executive of Inter Ikea, said the online push comes in response to a continued drop in traffic at the retailer’s out-of-town outlets, forcing it to turn to new types of stores, particularly in city centres, as well as new digital ideas. 

“[This] is the biggest development in how consumers meet Ikea since the concept was founded,” he told the Financial Times on Monday when the company announced the initiative. 

A test will begin next year with a number of websites — rumours have concentrated on the likes of Amazon and Alibaba, but Mr Lööf declined to comment — in what would be the first time Ikea has sold its products through a third party. 

“We want to learn, and know what it is for a company like Ikea to be there. We want to find out how we could keep our identity on a third-party platform,” he added. 

Ikea was relatively slow to move into online selling as there was heavy internal resistance to interfering with its successful business model of using labyrinthine store layouts to generate impulse purchases from shoppers as well as require them to drive to the stores and construct their own furniture. 

But it is looking at changes to all parts of that model. Mr Lööf said a priority would be to offer its full range of goods online in all countries. Ikea is also experimenting with new store formats including city-centre pick-up points and specialised pop-up stores as well as smaller shops that have fewer car parking spaces and less inventory. 

Ikea has agreed a deal to buy TaskRabbit, a pioneer of the gig economy that could help it offer assistance with furniture assembly to its customers. It has also launched an app that allows users of Apple devices to virtually place Ikea furniture into their own homes using augmented reality. 

“Traditionally the whole Ikea value chain has been designed to deliver to stores. That is changing and it is challenging a number of ways of doing business. We are fast learners and we are moving,” Mr Lööf said. 

Inter Ikea has been strengthened recently in the internal division of labour in the furniture empire. It is now not just the owner of the Ikea brand and concept but also in charge of product design, manufacturing and the supply chain. It purchased the latter responsibilities from Ikea Group, which is now solely concentrated on being a retailer. 

Mr Lööf’s comments came as Inter Ikea said that total sales in the business year until the end of August had risen 5 per cent to €38.3bn. Ikea Group, which accounts for about 94 per cent of sales with the rest made up by other franchisees, reports its own numbers on Tuesday.

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