IKEA SHANGHAI: THE PLACE TO FIND LØVE

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Hundreds of elderly Shanghainese flock to their local Ikea store to find someone, not to assemble furniture with, but to piece together a relationship.

Text and Photos: Remko Tanis

in Shanghai, China

Hu Wang (62) visits Ikea weekly. Not because he is the world’s biggest fan of Billy-bookshelves or Swedish meatballs: Hu comes for the ladies. And he's not alone. Each Tuesday and Thursday, the downtown Shanghai Xuhui branch of the furniture giant is being drowned out by hundreds of people aged 50 and over. They’re looking for love.

From the outside, the Ikea building is hardly the epicenter of romance. It looks like any other branch of the company in the world: a big, blue and yellow box. The bright colors contrast sharply with the grey concrete beams that carry two elevated highways and subway line 3 only meters from the outer walls of the store.

 

Inside, it's Tromso-beds, Sanby-couches and Basisk-lamps. Get up the escalator, turn right and there's the restaurant. Today’s specials: 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.

Only the sign next to the menu proves something is off here. 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.'

People in Jiuzi park in Shanghai, China. (C) Remko Tanis

Hu, a retired 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 though, 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’s all they’ll spend all afternoon. Their coffees are 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 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 grabs his phone from his pocket and shows a photo of his most recent romance. “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.

“Already 268 have come here today. And they keep coming.”

With one hand Zhou 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.

Women on a street in downtown Shanghai, China. (C) Remko Tanis

During peak periods like public holidays and 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. Kicking out a few hundred elderly doesn’t really fly in that PR strategy. Risk of social media uproar resulting in boycotts is always present for any business in the country. And Ikea has a lot to lose in China. In 2017 its China revenue reached 13.2 billion yuan, a 14 percent surge compared to 2016.

The first store in the country opened in 1998 in Beijing. Twenty years on there are 25 Chinese Ikeas, with more branches in the pipeline.

“Wherever you go, people tell you this is the place to find a new boyfriend if you’re over 50.”

According to spokeswoman Yin in Shanghai, 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? For sure nothing will ever happen if I do that!”

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 accidentally 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 now see for themselves: this is not the place for them. At least, not for another thirty years.