IKEA has replaced its print catalog with an audiobook

An ear for shopping.
An ear for shopping.
Image: Reuters/David Gray
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When IKEA canceled its beloved print catalog last year, it hinted at plans to venture into new formats to better reach an increasingly internet-dependent customer base. The world’s largest furniture company bolstered its e-commerce platform, built a better mobile app, and opened a string of small retail outlets in urban areas around the world. In what may be its zaniest gambit yet, IKEA has launched an audiobook.

Published on Spotify, Audible, and YouTube, the IKEA Audio Catalog is essentially a quippy version of its 288-page product book for the US market. Narrator Jasmin Richardson improves on humdrum product descriptions by ad libbing jokes and inserting wry observations throughout the almost four-hour audio track. For a section on home organization for instance, she riffs:

Did you know that research says we spend up to six years of our lives looking for things? Well, that explains a lot. If you’d rather spend that time doing something fun, we have good news for you. Getting organized is a totally doable dream. Underneath, we see some light gray cotton imported Ragissar baskets for $6.99 for a set of three. There are some knickknacks thrown inside. Each of these would be great for running out the door—and promptly forgetting your wallet or mask.

And for a page about clever solutions for wrangling small items around the house, she says:

Next, we see some interesting little uses for other things, like a Bergenes holder for a mobile phone or tablet for $3.99. Next we see a little rack holding some paper and some envelopes. The caption reads, “Technically it’s a plate holder. In real life, it’s an I’m-happy to hold-whatever-you need-me-to-hold” holder.

I, too, would love to be held.

Richardson, who has notable Broadway and television credits, was hired for her ability to convey a “smart but quirky and slightly off-beat fun” quality, according to Della Mathew, executive creative director of Ogilvy, IKEA’s advertising agency. Selecting a Black voice talent also underscores the Swedish brand’s “commitment to diversity and inclusion,” she adds. (Since last year’s Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism, IKEA’s US arm has introduced programs to promote racial justice. In October, it preemptively recalled its 2021 print catalog for fear that one image depicting a young Black man wearing a shirt with a sequence of numbers across his back might be construed as serial numbers on a prison inmate’s uniform.)

The rise of audio advertising

IKEA’s foray into audio-based marketing capitalizes on the surge of podcast and audiobook consumption during the months of lockdown. “We thought that bringing a new kind of inspiration to people who could benefit from it during these difficult times,” a spokesperson tells Quartz. “With audiobook and podcast listeners growing during the pandemic, we loved the idea of inspiring listeners by leveraging our iconic catalog in an entirely new, immersive, and completely IKEA-ish way.”

But can customers adequately shop for home furnishings without the visuals?

Barbara Kahn, marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, believes that producing content in multiple channels is a savvy move. “The idea of having two modalities—of getting people to be redundant in their search of IKEA—that is actually a good idea,” she says.

Kahn, who co-hosts the podcast Marketing Matters, says the ubiquity of voice-controlled personal assistants has trained the consumers’s ear to be more responsive to audio-based pitches. “People are letting them into their lives much more than they were in the past,” she observes. “Eventually you could imagine they’d be pretty fluid in shopping this way.” To her point, a recent survey by PYMNTS and Visa indicates that more shoppers are cautiously embracing the voice shopping feature on Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. Amazon also launched the service in India last year and is promoting its voice-assist fashion styling service.

An audio catalog also may draw in customers with visual or cognitive impairments. “This is an interesting concept and it is great that IKEA is thinking of ways to make its catalog and website more accessible,” says Chris Danielsen, the US National Federation of the Blind’s director of public relations. But listening to a sample, he says more detailed descriptions of products are needed for the audio experience to be truly meaningful to blind people. Recognizing the challenge of producing content that would appeal to sighted and blind audiences, he suggests that IKEA’s audiobook could “at least identify some items of interest [on each page], so a blind person could go to the store or contact a sales representative for further information.”

IKEA touts the audiobook as a first-of-its-kind production for its US operations. It produced a narrated version of its 2019 catalog for the Swedish market.