When walking through the winding showroom in the IKEA store in the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion, it’s understandable if you think you’ve wandered into a religious home.
In this iteration of the famous IKEA experience, which seeks to inspire shoppers to spend a little more by introducing finished looks to the various rooms around the house, you’re brought face-to-face with the best the catalog has to offer for the observant Jewish lifestyle.
A framed photo of the iconic Psalm liturgy, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill,” catches the eye the moment you walk in the door. The overall design includes quiet colors, Shabbat candlesticks, framed photos with quotes from Jewish scripture, and shelves packed with what looks like Talmud volumes and other holy books.
Naturally, outside the “window” installed in this setting lies a view of Jerusalem.
The storage units’ display continues the theme with bookshelves holding scriptures; the kitchen display offers shoppers a choice between clearly marked meat and dairy cutting boards. Throughout the store, you can find several designs of “Birkat Habayit” or “Blessing for the Home” — a popular Jewish blessing appearing as a hanging amulet for one’s entryway.
A visit to this IKEA branch in the evening shows that most of the customers are ultra-Orthodox families with children. And indeed, the Swedish furniture and home accessories giant is becoming increasingly popular nationwide among the Haredi (the Hebrew word for ultra-Orthodox) public.
“Many families visit IKEA without even needing anything,” Na’ama Idan, a Haredi advertising executive and vice president of trade at the Haredi weekly Yom Leyom (“Day to Day”), told Zman Yisrael, the Hebrew sister site of The Times of Israel.
“IKEA’s restaurants are kosher and convenient for families with children, and they are very affordable. IKEA’s strategy promotes a combination of home shopping with entertainment, so I’m sure the chain doesn’t restrict the cafeteria to shoppers only and avoids demanding diners show an invoice at the register,” she said.
IKEA Israel franchise holders are Jewish-American brothers Matthew and Jeremy Bronfman, who observe Torah law, and Shalom Fisher, a Haredi businessman. This may explain the retailer’s efforts to court the sector.
“With high availability, affordable price points, and a simple delivery system, this clearly fits the sector’s needs, but it’s also clear that this audience didn’t find IKEA stores by divine providence.
“It had to market itself properly,” Idan said.
The modest catalog
In 2017, IKEA released a Haredi-oriented catalog. Teaming with ultra-Orthodox ad agency Bolton Potential, the company opted to feature only men and boys in the catalog, boasting that this was a unique move catering specifically to its religious clientele in Israel.
This may have been a hit among ultra-Orthodox shoppers, but it earned IKEA scathing criticism from the general public and the company even faced a class-action lawsuit over it.
The suit, filed by a national-religious woman who received the catalog to her home and found it, as the claim lists, “degrading toward women,” alleged that the catalog “completely erased the female gender from its pages, thus promoting the exclusion of women from the public sphere.” It further argued that by releasing a catalog featuring solely men, the company had “deepened discrimination against women in general and in the ultra-Orthodox society in particular.”
IKEA’s international headquarters was quick to wash its hands of the whole thing. It apologized and said it was an error and that the move was not cleared with the company’s main office.
In 2018, IKEA again released a catalog for the ultra-Orthodox sector, this time, sans any people.
“That went over much better,” Idan said. “Excluding women from this catalog is uncalled for and it’s a sensitive issue, but it’s good that they found a way to expose the public to their products.”
“Today when you walk into an ultra-Orthodox home, at least half of the time you’ll see IKEA products. This is a conservative public that doesn’t go wild with colors and favors neutral color schemes, but has warmly embraced the consumer trend,” she said.
The August 2019 release of the latest IKEA catalog did not include the simultaneous release of a special catalog for the ultra-Orthodox public. IKEA declined to comment on whether it plans to issue separate catalogs for the Haredi sector in the future.
But regardless of the catalog, IKEA seems to have found a way to reach the Haredi heart by using tried and true consumer incentives — namely low prices, a Jewish lifestyle-oriented display, and separate, glatt kosher meat and dairy cafeterias.
All this takes place right alongside the chain’s Christmas-inspired designs, as IKEA stores also carry Christmas trees, Santa Claus hats, Christmas lights, and a host of other traditional Christmas decorations.
“IKEA has done well to convey a sense of empathy to ultra-Orthodox consumers using the means available to them, without making drastic moves and offending other consumer groups,” Moshe Miller, CEO of the Miller Point advertising agency operating in the Haredi sector, told Zman Yisrael.
“The chain did not remove women sales staff from the store, nor did it make them dress differently; it simply made the religious and ultra-Orthodox public feel comfortable,” Miller said.
As a result, he explained, “IKEA has earned a loyal consumer audience that has considerable purchasing power. In the Haredi community, there is no greater marketing ploy than word-of-mouth advertising. All it takes is one satisfied mother who came back from IKEA with her children after having a good time for the entire park and synagogue to hear about it — and follow suit.”
IKEA is not alone. The trend by which large retailers adapt their brand so as to court the Haredi public is growing.
“In the 1980s, the major food companies discovered the ultra-Orthodox sector and began to produce and market products especially for it, in accordance with kosher requirements and with low prices,” Miller said.
“In the 1990s and 2000s, the larger supermarket chains recognized the huge business potential of the ultra-Orthodox market and started operating specialty chains, like Shufersal’s Yesh [brand], Rami Levy Mehadrin and Osher Ad. Over the past decade, the major retailers have increased their hold on the Haredi sector by marketing a wide range of kosher home accessories, specialty consumer clubs, and so on,” he said.
Large clothing chains quickly caught on and also began marketing special lines for Haredi women, featuring designs that follow the sector’s modest dress code.
“These retailers have come to realize that the ultra-Orthodox sector’s purchasing power is huge — with big families, the number of events people attend is high, and there’s a need for elegant and festive clothing for Saturdays and holidays, all of which is purchased in larger numbers, because religious families are larger in comparison to secular families,” Miller said.
Miller noted that IKEA has also recognized the Haredi sector’s need for fun family shopping sprees, preferably in popular places where they do not feel alienated from the rest of society.
“It’s not like it used to be in the past for the Haredim, when the woman would go shopping for the entire family and be done with it. Like for any other Israeli family, shopping for the ultra-Orthodox is also a recreational activity,” Miller said.
A version of this article first appeared in Hebrew on The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael.