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John Kelly's Washington

A Good Place by Design

By John Kelly
Thursday, December 23, 2004; Page C13

In my fantasy, I live at Ikea.

Instead of being surrounded by a motley if well-intentioned collection of decorating styles accumulated over two decades of adulthood, I live in a clean and coordinated modern space where everything goes together: bathmat matching platform bed, platform bed matching armchair, armchair matching cabinet, cabinet matching . . . bathmat.

In my Ikea fantasy, I eat only Swedish meatballs washed down with lingonberry cider. Occasionally, I consume an entire box of wafer-thin ginger cookies.

_____Children's Campaign_____
Washington Post columnist John Kelly is raising money for the Children's National Medical Center, one of the nation's leading pediatric hospitals. You may make a tax-deductible contribution online anytime between Nov. 29th and Jan. 21st. Thank you for your support.
_____By John Kelly_____
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I'm obviously not the only person with such a fantasy, since Ikea is one of the big retailing success stories of the past 20 years. Whether we're in the United States (23 stores) or the United Arab Emirates (one store), walking through an Ikea gives us a glimpse of the lives we might have lived if only we'd been born Stockholm architects.

I wanted to know what goes on behind the scenes at the big College Park Ikea -- 371,000 square feet, 1,671 parking spaces, 475 employees -- so on a Friday night a couple of weeks ago, I hung around and watched how they close the place.

At 8:53 -- seven minutes before closing -- customers were still trickling in, either assuming that the store must be open late in the run-up to Christmas or confident in their ability to pick out a futon in five minutes flat.

At 9 p.m., the entry door was locked. Now it was time to sweep through the store to make sure everything was okay and gently nudge any stragglers toward the checkout lanes.

"Basically, we follow the outline of the store," explained John Peranio, assistant manager for safety and loss prevention.

That store outline is Ikea's masterstroke, a sinuous route that funnels shoppers past all those Potemkin-perfect room settings. Black arrows set into white circles on the gray floor served as our Yellow Brick Road.

No one was tarrying in the first room display we came to. A Tuffing highchair was hanging from the edge of a table set for dinner with Forma serving dishes. The scene was illuminated by a Melodi pendant lamp. I felt like Goldilocks, stumbling upon the lair of three hip bears.

Continuing our perambulation, we ran into Joe Cottone, who heads up the store's bedding and mattress department. I couldn't help asking what sort of bed a professional sleeper sleeps on.

"A Hemnes queen size with a Sultan Norrsken mattress," Joe said. The Sultan Norrsken has been discontinued, he pointed out. "It's equivalent to a Sultan Hamno."

Also in the sleep section was Kathy Poole, whose job includes constantly remaking all the beds that customers crawl into and occasionally fall asleep in. With the store empty, she could finally pull the covers tight without fear that they'd be instantly rumpled.

When we finished up in the showroom, John and I headed down to the grab-it-and-go Marketplace on the lower level. Workers dressed in the company's requisite blue and yellow uniforms scurried like elves, rearranging dinnerware, straightening lamps and stacking pillows. They were getting things as nice as possible before the "replenishment crews" came in around 4 a.m. to start restocking.

Next, John checked out the loading dock.

"This will be a very busy place at 3:30 in the morning," he said, when trucks jockey to disgorge their contents at the eight loading bays.

These are the parts of the store customers don't see. In a storage area, heavy-duty steel shelves stacked with pallets reached up to the cavernous ceiling. A forklift went by, beeping. A woman rode atop a floor-washing contraption that moved across the shiny concrete.

It was like the villain's lair in a James Bond movie. I kept expecting to hear an announcement: "Three minutes till rocket launch."

After about 40 minutes -- John's normal progress slowed by my idiotic observations -- we met up with Malin Andreasson, assistant customer service manager, at the checkout lanes. She'd been pointing customers to empty registers and opening them as needed (the registers, not the customers).

Malin, her short, spikish hair the color of jelly-doughnut filling, is from Sweden originally. She's been in the United States for 10 years and with Ikea for about six months.

"When I told my parents I got the job with Ikea," she told me, "they said, 'You traveled over the Atlantic Ocean to get a job at a Swedish company?' "

About 9:40, there was still one customer left, a man who was browsing the food aisles, the last bit of Sweden you encounter before reaching the exit doors. He'd bought some Swedish chocolates, Malin explained, but he'd decided what he really wanted was a Swedish cake.

Malin made sure the cash register stayed open until he was able to get his taste of Sweden.

Children's Hospital

We've made real strides in just the past few days in this year's campaign for Children's Hospital. As of yesterday, we'd raised $171,947.82. If we keep up this momentum, I'm hopeful that we'll reach our goal of $600,000 by Jan. 21. Here's how to contribute:

Make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To contribute by credit card online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and click on "Make a Donation." You'll be greeted by a pop-up that takes you right to the donation page.

To contribute by Visa or MasterCard by phone, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200, then punch in KIDS and follow the instructions.

My e-mail is kellyj@washpost.com.

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