Ingvar in America

Älmhult, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Älmhult.

In the early 1960s, Ingvar Kamprad started planning for further expansion of IKEA in Scandinavia and the wider world. But before focusing on the company’s journey, he wanted to broaden his own horizons. He went to the US to learn everything he could about distribution. But could the Americans really impress a man from Agunnaryd?

The selected route was an ambitious one. In three weeks Ingvar and his party would travel from Älmhult to New York, on to Chicago, back to New York and then over to San Francisco, take a little detour to Las Vegas and then west again to Los Angeles, finally returning home to Älmhult. With him on the journey were Reidar Grönneberg, a good friend and business acquaintance, and his father Feodor Kamprad. It was essentially an educational trip, Ingvar wanting to learn everything about American ideas and solutions when it came to retail and distribution. He had already read endless books on the subject, and now he wanted to know more about automated business systems.

Via business acquaintances, he found out which stores and warehouses might be of interest, and he ended up visiting about 50 different companies. He was curious about the specifics of retail, and came up with a list of questions: Are there stores with a low-price department in the basement? Is there a low-price furniture company with stores in the city, or maybe just outside? Is there a city with about 500,000–800,000 inhabitants that has particularly well-developed retail? Are there any mail order companies that sell a lot of furniture? And is there a furniture company where the entire distribution chain can be seen?

A motel with a pool behind leafy bushes and yellow flowers, photographed through a car window.
They spent many nights in motels as Ingvar travelled around visiting retailers, mail order companies, offices and warehouses. He observed that while there was a lot to see, it was also mainly a study in how not to do things.

He was impressed by how well developed the road network was, and realised the importance of having big parking lots. But overall, he wasn’t that impressed by what he saw. He felt that distribution in the world’s leading nation wasn’t actually that much to write home about. He learnt a lot. “More than anything, that maybe the US isn’t as remarkable as it looks at first sight,” as he wrote to his cousin Inga Brita Bayley. He also wrote that he was tired, unlike his father Feodor, who was in fine fettle and snoring away in the background.

The only record of his three intensive weeks in the US are the letters he wrote to family and business acquaintances. And of the 50 companies Ingvar visited, only a few impressed him. One of them, Hoffman & Boyle in New Jersey, was similar to IKEA, in fact Ingvar even said it was quite a bit better. “Also, I learnt just as much from the companies’ mistakes over there,” he wrote to a business acquaintance who had helped him prior to the trip. Regarding mistakes as an asset came to be a central aspect within IKEA. Bold ventures that fail miserably are excellent lessons to take on board. You can always learn something from ideas that don’t go as planned. An open-minded culture where it was all right to make mistakes started to take shape.

Ingvar and his father Feodor standing on a city street in dark suits and ties, squinting in the sun.
Over three weeks, Ingvar and his father Feodor visited 50 different companies. Ingvar found it tiring, but his dad loved every minute.
Ingvar Kamprad speaking with his father Feodor next to an old wooden wagon.
Ingvar spent a weekend at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and noted that he finished 14 dollars up.
Typewritten list of hotel bookings in different US cities.
Hotel bookings, 1961.