Hundreds of elderly Shanghainese flock to their local Ikea store to find someone, not to assemble furniture with, but to build up a relationship.
by REMKO TANIS
in SHANGHAI, China
Hu Wang (62) visits Ikea weekly. Not because he is such a big fan of the Billy-bookshelves or the Swedish meatballs: Hu comes for the ladies. And he's not alone. Tuesdays and Thursdays the downtown Shanghai branch of the furniture store is being drowned out by hundreds of people aged 50 and over who are looking for love.
From the outside, the Ikea building doesn't seem to be the epicenter of romance. The store looks like any other branch of the company in the world. It is a big box. The bright blue and yellow of its walls contrast sharply with the grey concrete beams which support two elevated highways and subway line 3, all flanking the store.
Inside, it's Tromso-beds, Sanby-couches and Basisk-lamps. Get up the escalator, turn right and there's the restaurant. A big sign at the entrance showcases the food: beef strips in oyster sauce with rice, 19.50 yuan. Swedish Meatballs, twenty of them, with mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce, 25.5 yuan. Everything like you would expect in any Ikea store anywhere.
But then there is the sign next to the menu which proves something is up. It's a desperate plea from the store's management. 'Recently, a very special group of 45 to 65 year olds is visiting our restaurant each Tuesday and Thursday. The organizers of this group profit from the free entrance and the free coffee given to holders of the Ikea Family card. Ikea would like to get in touch with these organizers, since the behavior of this group affects the way our restaurant does business. The group occupies a lot of seats, its members speak loudly and they are bringing food and drinks from home. They spit on the floor and sometimes even quarrel openly amongst each other. All of this effects the image of the city of Shanghai and of Ikea in a negative way. If you are part of this group, we hope you will use our restaurant after having shopped for furniture. Our restaurant is not meant to be a hang out for meeting new friends.'
Hu, a pensioned car mechanic, cannot be bothered by Ikea's plea. ,,Thanks to us this restaurant has any business at all'', he says. It's small change, if the food he has purchased this afternoon is any indication. Together with two friends he shares two croissants which cost them only six yuan in total. That is all they will spend. The coffee they are having is free, because they are all proud owners of the complimentary Ikea Family Card. ,,You should get one so you too can have coffee'', Hu advises. ,,Just put down a fake address on the form.''
Hu has been visiting this Ikea store for a while now, in search for a female companion whom he can delight with one of the Smycka fake roses the store sells. His hair is dyed black and neatly combed. He wears a crisp and clean grey suit. ,,It's not difficult to make friends here'', he smiles. ,,But to find this one special lady friend, that's something else. You know, the beginning is simple. You just walk up to a nice looking woman. You can start with a casual chat or simply inquire about her situation straight away. Most here are divorced or widowed and have a child. If things click, you exchange phone numbers.''
He gets his cell phone from his pocket and shows a photo of his most recent catch. ,,She was quite a bit taller than I. We hit it off when we met here and dated a few times after. But two months in, it was over.''
To limit the disturbance the group causes, Ikea has fenced off a special section in the restaurant especially for the elderly love birds. Zhou Hong (24) is working the cash register in the special section this Tuesday. Her main task is to give out the white cups that are meant for the free coffee for Family Card holders.
With one hand she supports her head, while she uses the other to swipe yet another Family Card. ,,Look here'', she points at her screen. ,,Already 268 of them have come here today. And they keep coming, without spending one cent.'' A man tries to grab a second sugar bag from a tray. Zhou is quick: ,,Hey! Only one per cup allowed!''
She accepts her duty of today with a mixture of boredom and amazement. ,,What can I do. It is company policy that card holders get free coffee. I have to obey that rule.''
The revenue of the restaurant tumbles by twenty per cent each Tuesday and Thursday, according to Ikea spokeswoman Yin Lifang. This is because the elderly occupy a large part of the restaurant without spending money.
During peak periods like public holidays and during weekends, the restaurant uses up two boxes of milk and sugar bags. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, that number goes up to six. To keep things in check, the store has hired six extra guards besides the regular duo for these days.
Yet Ikea doesn't evict the love birds. Because the store doesn't know who organizes the meetings, management has no one to turn to with a request to find a different location. Hu: ,,That's because there is no organizer. Sometimes I go to salons in the city where special evenings are held for match making. But you hear there as well: if you want to find love, go to Ikea. There is no organization. It's just something everyone knows by now.''
Ikea promises it's Chinese audience it is the store 'For Everyone' in its ads. That makes actively kicking out a few hundred elderly an even bigger PR-nightmare than it would normally be. The company cannot afford a bad image in China, because a lot is at stake. Last year its China revenue reached 4.9 billion yuan. The first store in the country opened in 1998 in Beijing. Currently there are nine branches throughout the country and there are plans for another eight to open within four years.
According to spokeswoman Yin sectioning off part of the restaurant for the elderly is the only workable solution for now.
Retired nurse Yang Xiao Yi (61) has come to the Ikea dating event for the first time today. ,,Wherever you go in town, people tell you this is the place to be to find a new boyfriend if you're over 50'', she says. And she's quite impressed with what's on offer. ,,The restaurant is a nice, big space and there's a nice amount of men. Maybe I'll have some luck, but if not this is still a great place to meet new people. What else am I going to do? Sit at home? Then I am sure nothing will ever happen.''
At 3 pm the restaurant is loaded. A man tells another to move away from the single empty chair left. He is saving it for a woman he has yet to meet. Across the room someone tries to step outside of the reserved area. Stopped by a guard, the man starts shouting and seems ready to put up a fight.
Along the windows, hundreds of elderly are chatting away, with an equal amount of white coffee cups spread across the tables. The noise level is deafening.
A younger couple accidently walks into the reserved section. They carry green coffee cups, which are given to regular paying customers. A slight hand gesture from a guard confirms what they already saw for themselves: this is not the place for them.