Sellers are looking to catapult an unlikely item — the once ubiquitous Ikea catalog — into the trove of uncommon collectibles that beckon nostalgia and grow in value.
“The very last Ikea catalog ever,” a recent eBay listing reads, offering the 2021 edition for $17. “In perfect unread condition. Stored flat in acid-free magazine-protector.” It joins a growing list of Ikea catalogs from former years, including one from 1974, printed in Swedish. (Yours for $549.)
Pointing to greater attention to its website, Ikea announced in December that 2021 would be the last printed catalog of its colossal supply of Swedish-named furniture and home goods that included the popular Poang chairs, Ektorp sofas, Kallax shelves, and Malm beds.
“Consumption and customer behaviors have changed,” Konrad Gruss, managing director for Inter Ikea Systems B.V., said in a statement in December, “and Ikea is already increasing digital investments while volumes and interest in the catalog have decreased.”
Over the last two decades, the popularity of catalogs declined before some companies reignited them, remaking them as creative pieces of print work primarily intended to inspire consumers, said Jonathan D. Zhang, an assistant professor of marketing at Colorado State University.
“The future of catalogs is not going to be a product catalog almost like Sears or Ikea,” Zhang said. Consumers were less likely to be drawn into bland product books that listed home appliances, for example, compared to catalogs that showed an elegantly furnished kitchen featuring a state-of-the-art dishwasher, or highlighted beautiful or luxurious items, he said.
Popular catalogs, like those from the high-end home furnishings company Restoration Hardware, also offered a sense of aspiration by selling stately $2,000 desks and $4,000 sofas, said Zhang who wrote a 2020 article for Harvard Business Review titled “Why Catalogs Are Making a Comeback.”
The Ikea catalog, with its famously affordable $10 end table, did not.
“It’s very utilitarian, and it’s very inexpensive,” he said. “Because their furniture is also utilitarian, it might not also evoke pleasure and emotion. The best catalogs are the ones that evoke emotion. They almost allow you to live vicariously through the photos if you can achieve that connection. Consumers are already going to like your brand more, almost unconsciously. They don’t need to make a purchase at the moment. That’s not the purpose at the moment. They remember your brand.”
Unlike ever-changing websites or e-mails touting fleeting deals, catalogs could seem antiquated. But, Zhang said, the feel and permanence of paper and the thoughtfully curated narratives and photos printed on them carry power. The internet is good at playing the short game, but print products, he said, are interested in the “medium to long game.” So even pure-online retailers such as Wayfair, Bonobos, Birchbox, and Amazon are now investing in catalogs.
“You don’t have to get a sale today,” he said, “because the sales will come later on.”
Ikea’s choice to retire the catalog came after the company reported a “solid financial result” in the last fiscal year. It recorded about 39.6 billion euros in sales, or about $48 billion, in fiscal year 2020, down from 41.3 billion euros in fiscal year 2019. The figures included food and service sales.
About 75% of Ikea’s 445 stores worldwide closed for seven weeks at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, though workers continued to ship out orders placed online.
When stores reopened, Ikea, which has its North American headquarters in Conshohocken, recorded 825 million visitors across its stores worldwide, a decrease from one billion guests the year prior. By Aug. 31, it had counted 4 billion visits to its website, while online sales grew 45% last year.
During the pandemic, customers shopped more deliberately, coming in for just what they needed, the company said in a financial summary for fiscal year 2020. Sales for miscellaneous items and impulse purchases went down, and furniture sales went up.
Over time, the catalogs increasingly became to some customers a thickly bound, richly researched relic, one that Ikea had distributed so prolifically that it rivaled the reach of the Bible and the Harry Potter series.
Each catalog, meticulously curated for each of the company’s diverse customer bases, was home decor crossed with ethnography. Sometimes Ikea got it right: Kitchens in Chinese Ikea catalogs were smaller, reflecting much of the housing available, according to Quartz. At other times, the company apologized for erasing women out of the pages in catalogs bound for Saudi Arabia.
In 2015, the late German literary critic Hellmuth Karasek facetiously reviewed the 2016 Ikea catalog. “The book by Ikea could be criticized for having more pictures than characters,” he remarked. “It has a lot to say, but much could be considered junk.”
In 2016 alone, Ikea sent out 200 million copies. There were 69 different versions of it that year, in 32 languages. Its first one, printed in Swedish 65 years ago, had been a mere 68 pages, a wisp of what would eventually be a formidable, 300-page (or more) text.
“For 70 years it has been one of our most unique and iconic products, which has inspired billions of people across the world,” Gruss said in his statement. “Turning the page with our beloved catalog is emotional but rational.”