My First Shopping Trip to Ikea
John Moore/Getty Images

I Shopped at Ikea for the First Time and Here's What Happened

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My First Shopping Trip to Ikea
John Moore/Getty Images

From Sweden, With Love

Yes, yes — I am beyond late to the Ikea party. But now I can proudly say I took my expectations (being overwhelmed, finding a stark warehouse setting, and tasting Swedish meatballs) to the nearest location of the Swedish-founded company. Around since 1943 and in America since the 1970s, Ikea is perhaps best known for designing and selling furniture you build yourself. Well, nearly three hours on-site found me learning much, much more — at times dazzled, at others disappointed. Read on for details of my first visit — what I saw, bought, and ate (spoiler alert: no Swedish meatballs).

Related: 18 Secrets and Hacks for Shopping at Ikea

It Was Very Easy to Access
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It Was Very Easy to Access

The New Jersey location I visited (in the midst of a sprawling commuter/retail corridor) was incredibly easy to get to. All I had to do was look for Ikea Drive off the highway. Clear signs and a giant parking lot got the late-afternoon weekday visit off on the right foot. I spied a bicycle rack (odd for the traffic-heavy location) and laughed at the twine station in the loading dock area, until I later saw someone using some to secure a huge item onto their car's roof. Also of note, when leaving in the early evening, it was reassuring to see a security vehicle patrolling the lot.

The Visit Starts Before You Enter
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The Visit Starts Before You Enter

Sure, stores usually post their hours on the front door, but here, visitors learn not only hours, but credit cards accepted, a year's worth of holiday closings and policies ranging from pets (service animals only) to smoking and guns (neither!). Once inside you'll find not only "what's happening now" details but plenty of free catalogs.

Related: I Shopped at Costco for the First Time and Here’s What I Learned

You'll Learn a Bit of Swedish
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You'll Learn a Bit of Swedish

"Hej!" was also emblazoned across the entrance in Ikea yellow (a signature color along with blue) — "That's how we say 'hello' in Swedish!" I'd also learn goodbye — plus a few more phrases as the visit progressed. Don't quiz me, though.

You'll Also Learn About Sweden and Its Culture
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You'll Also Learn About Sweden and Its Culture

Within moments of entering, you'll also see signage and wall imagery that explores where Ikea began, folklore traditions such as the handcrafted Dala Horse and later, travel ideas through an IceHotel promo in the Bistro.

Related: 18 Places to ‘Travel Abroad’ Without Leaving the Country

You'll Be Able to Pause Throughout Your Visit
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You'll Be Able to Pause Throughout Your Visit

Those who get overwhelmed by mega-stores such as these, or have trouble being on their feet for long stretches, need not worry — there are plenty of places, from lounges to random benches, to pause (and perhaps even plan your strategy). The store also is focused on accessibility with stairs, escalators and elevators (though we found it odd that there were no escalators down).

Related: 13 People Who Shouldn't Shop at Ikea

You Make Your Own Cart
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You Make Your Own Cart

I have to admit the cart situation stumped me at first — you take one of the Ikea yellow bags and somehow attach its straps onto a metal cart to create a "basket" of sorts. I actually looked to other customers to see I had it (almost) right... Later on, you'll switch to another, more traditional cart. (We didn't know to do that — actually, we thought we didn't have enough for the oversized cart, which earned us a bit of attitude at the checkout).

You Have Options to Consider Before You Dive In
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You Have Options to Consider Before You Dive In

Visitors can download an app to make the shopping experience easier, take advantage of the Ikea Family program by signing up at a kiosk (we didn't realize what it was and missed out on, we later found out, perks such as a free coffee and more) and also sign up or access a gift registry.

Ikea Loves Kids
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Ikea Loves Kids

Kids are welcome here — there's no denying that. Most notable is the near-the-entrance Småland, "the magic forest for play & fun" (basically, a bit of daycare while you shop) but the welcome extends to affordable kids' meals in the Restaurant, where "baby food, high chairs and bibs are always available." And the kids' area of the Showroom has toys designed to stimulate their minds as well as entertain.

The Store Has Two Parts
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The Store Has Two Parts

I expected a giant warehouse filled with pallets of furniture. Instead, I headed up an escalator and entered the Showroom, a massive area that was as inviting of the pages of any major shelter magazine. You tour this floor by passing through vignette after vignette (living room to bedroom, bath to family room) created in styles ranging from bold and funky to sophisticated and luxurious. Then, you eventually head to the lower floor, the Marketplace.

Related: Vintage Ikea Furniture Pieces That Resell for Serious Money

You Won't Get Lost
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You Won't Get Lost

Forget aisles and rows in the Showroom — shoppers are guided through the entire floor by following a path, both mapped out and then further clarified by arrows on the floor. It's easy — but you also feel a bit manipulated in that you have to go through every section. Of course, if you want to go back, there are "shortcuts," which my shopping companion and I likened to escape routes.

You May Be Confused at How it All Works
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You May Be Confused at How it All Works

We found the procedure here confusing at first. Do you put items in your cart? Do you make a list? Do you have to use the app? Turns out labels tell you pretty much what to do — if you're supposed to take the item from the bin, shelf or display, or make note of where to find it on the lower floor. We asked an employee (make that "coworker," more on that in a moment) right off the bat but found we had to ask another one before we started to get the hang of it. And we liked that the labels are filled with all kinds of information including "Good To Know" tidbits about each product.

Yes, We Said 'Coworker'
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Yes, We Said 'Coworker'

It turns out that employees here are not called staff or team members but rather coworkers. Maybe it's just us but we found that pretty pretentious — or perhaps it was just lost in the translation. But bottom line, I don't work here. These are not my coworkers. Just sayin'.

Another Effort to Relate Did Work
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Another Effort to Relate Did Work

Okay, so the coworker thing got under my skin, but another way the store reached out really did seem to work. Throughout the Showroom were "testimonials" from real, local families as to how they live and how they integrated their Ikea purchases into their homes. Also, there were plenty of examples of how you can design a whole space following a specific budget — all well within reach for many shoppers.

Bargains Are at the Ready
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Bargains Are at the Ready

The first thing that struck me was that there are some crazy bargains to be had, evidenced by a bin filled with packages of tea lights (100 for $4). Later, we'd see glass champagne flutes (not plastic) for 79 cents each.

The Return Policy Is Generous
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The Return Policy Is Generous

I bought a top at the mall the other day — and was surprised when the cashier made a point of saying the return policy was 14 days. Not at Ikea. Here, you have a year. Yes, the return policy gives you 365 days to return a purchase, "Because sometimes you change your mind."

Related: Store Return Policies for Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy & More

It's Easy to Recycle Here
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It's Easy to Recycle Here

I didn't expect to see "recycling stations" throughout the selling floor — but how thoughtful. And before you leave, you can also stop at the Wrapping Station and use old newspapers to pack up anything fragile you've bought.

It's All About Safety First
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It's All About Safety First

Labels share details of proper use of products. A display ladder on a bunk bed vignette had the rungs covered to avoid climbing (and potential mishaps) and the kids' toy area touts the way items are produced with safety in mind.

Related: 15 Dangerous Products That Had to Be Recalled

There Are Plenty of Clever Ideas
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There Are Plenty of Clever Ideas

From plentiful storage options to unique ways to display collections or create artful moments throughout your home, wandering the Showroom will give you countless ideas — whether you buy what they're showing or not.

Related: 20 Ikea Products to Buy — and 20 to Skip

You're Not All on Your Own
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You're Not All on Your Own

For those who can see the big picture, the makings of a renovation seem to be at the ready. But many shoppers need at least a bit of advice. Here, there are those coworkers but also catalogs and kiosks to help you with your plans. (And there's also a collaboration with TaskRabbit assembly service).

You Can Dream Big
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You Can Dream Big

In addition to an ATM, we noticed a few "credit kiosks," where you can walk yourself through the approval process — and then really go to town.

The Displays Are Varied
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The Displays Are Varied

Look in front of you. Look up. Look to the side. Display space is utilized in various ways, rooms vignettes lead into Showroom areas devoted to single objects such as tables for example. It's a nice way to break things up — and keep you wondering what's next.

There's a Lot of (Digital) Interaction
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There's a Lot of (Digital) Interaction

Coworkers seem to take a low-key approach. In fact, no one at all approached us, not even once, to ask if we needed help. (And that's not a complaint since so many home stores seem to tail you at every turn). But there are plenty of options to interact with touchscreens throughout the store so you can explore everything from how to configure a sectional to Swedish celebrations.

There's So Much Lighting
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There's So Much Lighting

Not having a clear idea of what would be on offer, we were at first surprised by the array of appliances but truly impressed by the artistic options when it comes to lighting. Talk about giving a room some personality.

This Is a Good Place for Baby Gifts
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This Is a Good Place for Baby Gifts

It can be hard to find something unique when you have to buy a gift for a new baby. We were utterly charmed by the whimsical selections here, from what seemed to be very well-made stuffed animals to a memorable KLAPPA mobile ($8) designed so that, "The figures and patterns face downwards to meet the child's upward gaze."

... and Party Goods
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... and Party Goods

If you're throwing a big bash, this is a surprising source for everything from sparking nonalcoholic beverages to paper napkins, sturdy dinnerware to extra kitchen tools.

Design Rules Here
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Design Rules Here

As the previously mentioned baby mobile clearly boasts thoughtful design, so does much of what's on display — and it's all shared through signage that details not only the approach but often specifies the designer by name.

... But So Does Mindfulness...
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... But So Does Mindfulness...

Throughout, there are signs that explain the sustainable practices (solar panels on the building's roof), the People + Planet initiative, the use of certain materials (bamboo, for example, in certain bath accessories), the origins of offered fare (such as the story behind the coffee served in the Bistro) and the backstories of the handmade products, such as the way rugs are made in India by craftspeople who are assured fair wages and safe working conditions.

As Does Community Interaction
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As Does Community Interaction

Before you head down to the Marketplace, there's room for a little tooting of Ikea's own horn — a large area spotlights the way this local Ikea is active in the community, including a number of awards and recognition.

Related: 25 Companies That Are Doing Good Deeds With Your Dollars

The Marketplace
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The Marketplace

As fancy as the Showroom is, the Marketplace is where it gets "down and dirty" — bins and shelves and displays where you are picking up your goods — or seeing things you just have to have, even if you're not sure what you'll do with them. It's also the place where you get a real sense of accomplishment — spying something upstairs, let's just say it's a fashion-forward throw pillow for a steal ($13), and locating it in the area you expected.

Pets Are Not Forgotten
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Pets Are Not Forgotten

At Ikea, pets are part of the family, too. And there's a dedicated, if workmanlike, section for them that includes everything from bowls and leashes to pet beds and toys.

Yes, There Is a Staggeringly Large Warehouse Area
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Yes, There Is a Staggeringly Large Warehouse Area

We had probably been in Ikea some two hours before we hit the space we had always pictured in our minds — the cavernous place where you pick up all that furniture you assemble yourself. It is something to see, to be sure.

You'll See Some Pretty Big Buns
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You'll See Some Pretty Big Buns

Food is promoted throughout the store — you'll read several times about the "fika" tradition of a chat over coffee and a cinnamon bun. We found ourselves laughing out loud at this quirky sign promoting those cinnamon buns.

The 'As-Is' Section
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The 'As-Is' Section

As we headed to the checkout area, we were surprised to see the "As Is" section, which features both "deal of the day" and up to 50% off "as-is" furniture. Talk about a handyman's special.

Checking Out
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Checking Out

We found the cashiers to be pretty brusque. Since food items were displayed both before and beyond the registers, we asked how it worked — and got a bit of attitude. Then, when we came back to pay, we chose a different cashier, but this one snapped at us to put the items on the belt. Um, yes, we kind of figured that's how it worked. As we tried to unhook the yellow Ikea bag to make room for our own reusable bag we had brought, we got a sassy "You can't take that." Wow.

Related: These Stores Are Getting Rid of Cashiers and Checkout Lanes

You May Need a Translator for Your Receipt
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You May Need a Translator for Your Receipt

We bought a modest amount, a mix of home-accent pieces and foodstuffs — but it took a little bit of thought and the process of elimination to figure out items and their cost, finally realizing, for example, "SARALENA cush" was the pillow and that "Knackebrod" was the sleeve of crispbread.

There's Room for a Subtle Self-Promotion
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There's Room for a Subtle Self-Promotion

As we walked through the Swedish Food Market, we thought these cookies looked appealing — and then realized that hey, they are shaped "I," "K," "E" and "A."

Food Is Not an Afterthought
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Food Is Not an Afterthought

Food, as we repeat much in the way Ikea does, is a big part of the Ikea experience. I mean who hasn't heard of the famed Swedish meatballs? But there is more than one way to get a real "taste" of things here as options include the Swedish Food Market, the Bistro and the Restaurant.

We Went to Market
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We Went to Market

The Swedish Food Market is a wonder — we found ourselves filling our cart with crispbreads and jam, juices and sweets. Signs share stories of the products' origins and note affordable meals that can be made from purchases. And there are recipe cards to take away, too.

Related: 40 Foods That Americans Are Missing Out On

We Became Obsessed With Lingonberries
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We Became Obsessed With Lingonberries

The lure of the exotic took hold. I'd never given lingonberries much (if any) thought, but within moments found myself not only buying organic lingonberry jam and a chocolate bar with lingonberries to bring home but bypassed soda for lingonberry fruit water to accompany my meal.

... And Candy
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... And Candy

The array of "scoop-your-own" candy was impressive and unique, from unusual licorices to hazelnut toffees. It was an unexpected highlight — and a sweet bargain to boot.

We Had a Bit of a Disappointment
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We Had a Bit of a Disappointment

A quick check of the website before our trip let us know that the Restaurant had just closed for renovations that would last a few weeks. We were not the only ones let down — when we had our post-shopping meal in the Bistro, a man at a nearby table moaned to his wife, "I want Swedish meatballs so bad." Next time! (And in the interim, they do sell a few frozen varieties to make at home).

... But Quickly Overcame It
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... But Quickly Overcame It

The Bistro — its unfailingly polite staff, tasty selections and unbelievable prices — proved, dare we say, perhaps the highlight of the trip? Two hot dogs plus fountain drink (free refills) for $3.25; two veggie dogs plus same drink for $2.75! Other choices included a chicken wrap, pizza, frozen yogurt and more. We capped our casual meal with the well-advertised cinnamon bun (even at $1, it was very dry and quite disappointing) and delicious cups of coffee (94 cents)! Yes, we'll try the revamped Restaurant next time but we weren't crying in the meantime.

Some Things Are Free
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Some Things Are Free

We found it quite unexpected to see a few freebies, even if we didn't partake. These included offering free diapers in the ladies' restroom (again, that child-friendly approach) — and then the free WiFi and countless catalogs.

Overall Impressions — the Unexpected
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Overall Impressions — the Unexpected

We did not expect to feel we were walking through a catalog or magazine come to life, as the Showroom made us feel. We also saw plenty of goods that we never expected, from pinking shears to slippers and robes, sheepskin throws to stoves, faux flowers to live plants — and a number of unique storage options for shoe lovers (um, we're not saying who they might be).

Related: 15 Trendy Designer-Look-Alike Shoes and Boots Under $100

And the Weird
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And the Weird

We saw sophisticated — and cute. We saw practical — and fanciful. And then we just saw something weird, yet weirdly charming.

Feedback Is Welcome
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Feedback Is Welcome

Ikea wants to know what you think — and that is made very clear.

Ikea Is Quite Polite
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Ikea Is Quite Polite

We got a warm welcome — and a generous sending off.

We Went Home With More Than We Planned
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We Went Home With More Than We Planned

Having no shopping list — and no home renovations underway — we didn't expect to be stocking up on furniture or the like. But we also didn't expect to find the bargains we did and get caught up in the whole aura, especially when it came to the food. Next time, we have a better idea — tell them to put the fire on those Swedish meatballs, too.