Saying that ‘the times are changing,’ IKEA kills its print catalogue

The annual IKEA Catalogue has been described as the retailer’s most powerful marketing tool, filled with page after page of idealized settings for its Billy bookshelves and Poäng chairs. First introduced in 1951, it became a well-thumbed paean to cheap and cheerful furniture that could hang around a home for months.

But, saying that “the times are changing,” IKEA announced Monday that it is discontinuing the catalogue after 70 years. “Consumer behaviour and media consumption have changed, and the IKEA Catalogue has been less used,” said Inter IKEA Systems, the worldwide IKEA franchisor, in a release announcing the decision.

According to one estimate, the catalogue accounted for as much as 70% of IKEA’s annual marketing budget. The first catalogue was designed by IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad himself, featuring a cover image of the retailer’s MK wing chair in brown upholstery.

From humble beginnings, it would eventually become as much a part of IKEA’s identity as the Allen Key and 75-cent hotdogs. At its peak in 2016, IKEA distributed 200 million copies of the catalogue in 69 different versions in 32 languages to more than 50 markets.

But, just as with print counterparts like the U.K.’s Argos catalogue (once found in three-quarters of all British homes, but discontinued this year) and catalogues from retailers like H&M and Victoria’s Secret, the reach and power of the IKEA Catalogue has waned as consumer habits shift towards ecommerce.

IKEA Canada said on Monday that its online sales increased by 41.9% in 2019, with registering more than 178.5 million visitors. The company has also introduced a new shoppable IKEA app. “The decision to say goodbye to the IKEA Catalogue goes hand-in-hand with the ongoing transformation of IKEA,” the company said.

There have been some notable IKEA Catalogue missteps along the way. Just this year, it paused distribution because of a photograph featuring an image of a young Black man wearing a shirt featuring a sequence of numbers, after complaints that it could be misconstrued as the number on a prison uniform. The company also found itself embroiled in controversy in 2013, when women were airbrushed out of copies of the catalogue distributed in Saudi Arabia.

And then there was the 2006 catalogue, which contained an infamous image of a Greyhound lolling with a family on a couch while sporting what many people mistook for a large human penis, but was actually its leg. IKEA Canada’s then PR manager, Madeleine Frick, admitted to The Globe and Mail at the time that it bore an “uncanny likeness” to a particular piece of the male anatomy.

The controversy quickly blew over, however. Which proves that when you’re publishing millions of copies of a catalogue for nearly three-quarters of a century, the occasional cock-up is to be expected.

Chris Powell