Ikea: A cheap alternative to childcare

Children play in a ball pit at Smaland, Ikea's childcare drop-off center.

TEXT OF STORY

Bill Radke: Ikea is a popular spot for cheap and stylish furniture. It's also got a play area called Smaland, where you can leave you kids for a bit while you shop. That's the idea. Well, it seems attendance is up at Smaland. It's sort of a free babysitting service. Here's Ashley Milne-Tyte.


Ashley Milne-Tyte: Ikea says some of its stores are taking in 10 [percent] to 15 percent more children at Smaland this year.

One of those stores is in Brooklyn. Monica Willis is a regular there. She says childcare is expensive, but Ikea makes it easy to deposit her two kids for an hour or so of play without having to pay $15 to $20.

Monica Willis: It's a really, really comfortable place to be. You know, and it's safe. The kids love it, there's so much to do in the Smaland ball pit. You can't really go anywhere, it's like an indoor play space and it's free.

It's also supervised. The number of staff members goes up along with the number of kids they have to watch. Willis's 7-year-old daughter, Polly, loves it.

Polly: You can either play in like a ball pit or this giant shoe, or you can watch a movie.

But while Polly and her brother are plunging into a sea of plastic balls or parked in front of a DVD, their mother is often slumped in a chair just out of sight, reading. Or making some phone calls, free of interruptions.

Milne-Tyte: Do you ever use it as an opportunity to actually shop at Ikea?

Willis: Umm, with the kids, no, usually. We might buy a few small things while we put them in there, but actually mostly we just go to hang out.

Ikea says if a parent chooses to skip the store's aisles, that's fine. The company says it's glad to introduce people to the Ikea experience.

Patricia Pao is a retail consultant. Sitting in the cafeteria at the Brooklyn store, she says Ikea is doing well while other home stores suffer -- and it's partly because it offers cheap food and free childcare.

Patricia Pao: Every retailer now is desperate to provide their customers for a reason to walk in the door and spend money. And Ikea has done exactly that with a relatively little amount of money and investment.

Pao says other retailers with space could benefit by having drop-off play areas.

Pao: Especially someone like Target, who is really struggling. I think this kind of service is a great way for Target to kind of increase their value to the kind of customer that they want to reach.

Of course, the kind of customer most stores want to reach is one who stays on the premises, even if they don't buy anything. Monica Willis says she knows one parent who parks her child at Smaland, then sneaks off to shop at a nearby supermarket.

In Brooklyn, I'm Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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