2013-06-13 / News

Island Outlook

The reason IKEA stores aren’t in RI
By Steve Heffner

Did NECAP cost R.I. an IKEA?

That’s what my sources tell me – and it’s a timely question in this season of graduations, as nervous high school juniors fret that their NECAP scores might cost them a stroll across the matriculation podium next June.

NECAP – short for New England Common Assessment Program – is the graduation test that’s gotten students and teachers so riled up around the state. IKEA is the Swedish retail home furnishing giant, with sprawling big-box stores worldwide. At first glance, nothing appears to connect the two, but my sources swear otherwise.

Okay, full disclosure: my sources are a couple from Westerly I met in the IKEA store parking lot in New Haven a few weeks ago. They drove down in a van looking for bargains on living room furniture. When I saw their Rhode Island license plate, I struck up a conversation.

“Too bad we have to come all this way,” I said cheerfully. “Be nice if they’d build an IKEA in Rhody.”

“I heard they were planning one,” said Eddie, the husband. “Somewhere in North Kingston, I think. Then, the NECAP thing happened.”

“Excuse me?

“You know, NECAP – that big test,” said Wilma, the wife. “The one that showed half the high school kids in Rhode Island don’t really know much.”

NECAP is a standardized regimen intended to determine whether 12th-graders deserve diplomas. High school juniors here took the test last October – and the results were a disaster. In Providence, for example, nearly two-thirds of the students failed it badly enough that they’re at risk of not graduating in 2014. Students in other districts faired just as poorly. (Jamestown’s juniors did better than most, but they were far from perfect.) The test allows room for improvement over the kids’ senior year – but there’s plenty needed.

Frank said, “We might have been OK if it had been just the kids who got found out. But then the others got exposed.”

The “others” were 50 adults, including educators and other whitecollar types, who were persuaded to try their hand at the NECAP exam. When it was over, 30 had flunked outright, nine were questionable at best, seven did OK, and only four got what would be considered an “A.”

“That was the deal-breaker for IKEA,” said Frank, shaking his head sadly.

I was confused. “I don’t get it.”

Wilma put a motherly hand to my cheek and said, “That’s because you don’t really understand IKEA.”

And she proceeded to explain that IKEA’s success leans on the idea that its furniture is manufactured in component parts that are loaded, unassembled, into compact “flat-pack” boxes. The system saves labor (and money) at the factory, and cuts shipping and storage costs. And, at the retail end, it’s easy for customers to carry out the items and load them into their cars.

“But there’s one crucial key to making the plan work,” said Wilma, waving a forefinger in front of my nose. “Do you know what it is?”

“Uh ... maybe,” I said timidly. “Or maybe not.”

She boomed: “THE CUSTOMERS HAVE TO BE SMART ENOUGH TO PUT THE DARN STUFF TOGETHER WHEN THEY GET IT HOME!”

She wobbled a bit. Frank put a steadying hand on her arm and she took a deep breath. In a calmer voice, she said, “Remember: IKEA is a Swedish word that means ‘lots of assembly required.’ And if you live in a place where the people aren’t bright enough to do the assembly ...”

“Like Rhode Island,” said Frank.

“… you won’t be getting an IKEA store in your neighborhood anytime soon.”

In truth, IKEA does seem pretty picky about setting up stores, as there are only three dozen or so in the country. By contrast, there are more than 3,000 Walmart supercenters. And though you might be happy with the variety, quality and value of the offerings at IKEA, there’s no getting around the fact that when you open that box at home, a whole pile of hinges, handles, spindles, pegs, bolts, screws, nuts, washers, bits and pieces can tumble out. And putting it all together can take some ingenuity.

Is it possible IKEA doesn’t think there are enough Rhode Islanders who can handle it to risk a store here? I emailed that question to IKEA and haven’t heard back yet. Whatever their criteria, our laying a collective egg on the NECAP test probably can’t help.

Back in New Haven, as Frank loaded a half dozen boxes into his van, I asked, “Are you the lucky guy who gets to make furniture out of all this?”

“You’re kidding, right?” he said, genuinely surprised. “I wouldn’t even try. Instead, every summer we host foreign exchange students and get them to do it. Last summer we had a whiz kid from Taiwan. He was so smart he made a silicon computer chip from sand he scooped up at the beach in Misquamicut.

“His brother’s coming this year. Knocking this stuff together will take him an hour or two. Me? It’d take a month, and I’d still have half of it on backwards and parts left over with no place to put ’em. Remember, I’m from Rhode Island. I couldn’t pass the NECAP with an open book full of answers.”

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