A plate at the South Philly Ikea touts it's the perfect size for a cheesesteak — if people used plates for cheesesteaks. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

It seems to be a fact of life that time and space move differently in Ikea stores, and it’s easy to get lost if you’re not a regular.

While you may still find yourself confused about what department you’re in (or where the exit is) when you visit the Swedish retailer’s South Philadelphia location, you’re at least unlikely to forget what city you’re in.

One of two locations in this metro area, the Ikea on the Delaware River waterfront has a way of catering toward Philadelphians at every corner, from entire room layouts modeled off homes in Philly neighborhoods to a suggestion for which of its plates will best fit a cheesesteak.

All outposts of the international furniture and homegoods seller have similarities, and every Ikea store around the world has its own local elements that allow it to be successful in its market. 

A bedroom display that mimics what you might find in Point Breeze, as imagined by designers at the South Philly Ikea. Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Being responsive to local needs and tastes is part of the overarching philosophy of the chain’s founder, who believed in getting to know his customers and “democratizing design” so he could sell them things that were both useful and affordable, said Kate Helton, the shop design manager at the South Philly Ikea.

“We just want people to see themselves within the store,” Helton told Billy Penn. “And if you live in Philly, you know that we have a unique way of doing things, we have a unique set of needs and circumstances, and that kind of depends on where you live within the city, too.”

Showing off ‘local living solutions’

The South Philly location has some distinct differences from many other Ikeas, which are often located a considerable drive away from their customer base. The Columbus Boulevard store, however, generally sees customers from within a 20-minute radius, Helton explained. 

You’ll find signs touting “local living solutions” hanging next to products throughout the store — essentially the store’s pitch for how that particular product is a good fit for Philly homes.

“Local living solutions” posted throughout the South Philly Ikea pull from real-life surveys of customers in the region. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Some of the signs list stats from market research (“29% of customers don’t have enough space in the living room”), while others describe facts about local architecture: “Philly spaces can present a challenge for families who want large sofas, especially in slim rowhomes.”

The idea, Helton said, is to show off the store’s expertise in how people live, while highlighting concrete solutions.

A city in a showroom

As you snake through the seemingly endless showroom, you may notice living rooms designed to mimic a South Philadelphia rowhome, Rittenhouse condo, renovated Fishtown house, and Washington Square West apartment. You’ll also find displays meant to resemble bedrooms in Point Breeze, Pennsport, Northern Liberties, and other neighborhoods. There are also several model rooms that simulate South Jersey living spaces.

A bedroom display that mimics what you might find in a South Philly rowhome, as imagined by designers at the South Philly Ikea.

The idea behind localizing room layouts, per Helton, is to show off the potential of those spaces that take into consideration their size, shape, and the budget of someone who’s likely to be living there.

“Our favorite thing is actually to kind of hide back in the background and listen to customers say, ‘Oh my God, this is exactly like my room at home,’” she said.

In the bedroom department, signs on each room feature hypothetical occupants of those rooms, what neighborhood they live in, and a short description of them, their profession, and their lifestyle. 

The team uses Zillow and other real estate websites to study the layout of local homes, Helton said. In some cases, members of the store’s loyalty program volunteer to invite Ikea staff into their homes for a tour and interview. That method comes in handy when they’re looking to learn about how a specific living situation is addressed — for example, raising children in the city.

The team draws inspiration from staff living situations, too.

Helton herself has lived in several different Philly neighborhoods and one nearby suburb over the decade she’s been in the area, in many types of homes: an apartment, a rowhome, a loft, a standalone house. In each of those, she said, she gleaned information to bring back to her team.

A display set up to be Ben Franklin’s publishing house at the South Philly Ikea. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

“We talk obsessively about where we all live, what our challenges are,” Helton said. “We know how people in Philly live because we’re also people in Philly. And humans have pretty similar desires in the way that they want their homes to feel.”

Take a look out the (fake) windows

Adding to the local vibe in the mock-Philly rooms are photos of local sites positioned in fake window frames across the store — think Rittenhouse Square signage, the Center City skyline, rows of rowhomes, cobblestone alleys.

Some of the fake windows in the store just use stock images. But Helton said the local shots were snapped about 6 years ago by a member of the South Philly Ikea team who also did freelance photography. The store rented a camera for a week and the staffer spent a week taking photos in and near Philly, even down the shore.

Some of the window scenery changes with the seasons, Helton noted, with snow on trees in winter or little buds in the springtime.

A display that mimics what you might find in a Rittenhouse condo, as imagined by designers at the South Philly Ikea.

Look closely at the real windows, too

The Ikea cafe has a pretty nontraditional view for a big-box store: the SS United States, an ocean liner that’s been parked in the Delaware River for 27 years.

Curious customers can learn some tidbits about the ship across the street from some small decals on the furniture store’s front windows. You’ll also find little blurbs stuck to the window about the Port of Philadelphia, Delaware Avenue, the nearby Walt Whitman Bridge — a complement to the various Swedish culture trivia posted throughout the cafe.

The South Philly Ikea has fun facts about its surroundings posted on window stickers around the store. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

The stickers hearken back to the desire for employees to come off as local experts, Helton said — and Philly’s deep history “gives so much room to tell that story.”

‘Your Philadelphia neighborhood store’

Beyond the practical and the educational, you might catch a few other Philly Easter eggs scattered throughout the store.

For example: local landmarks in picture frames (this reporter found a framed photo of Eastern State Penitentiary tucked inside a cabinet in one of the model bedrooms), notes about going to Phillies games or “down the shore” on kitchen boards in the showroom, signage encouraging customers to “snack like a Swede while you root for the Birds.”

There’s even an oblong plate for sale with a display that’s labeled as being “the perfect size for a Philly cheesesteak.”

The South Philly Ikea goes down the shore. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

The idea is that those little “emotional connections make you feel like we’re your friend,” Helton said.

“It’s just sort of like a little inside joke throughout the store to kind of reiterate that we live here, we know what it’s like, we love Philly, and we’re your Philadelphia neighborhood store,” she said.

Adding these sorts of local touches is common in Ikea stores, Helton said. In Texas, one location has a closet system filled with rodeo gear. (The Ikea team in South Philly has talked about filling a showroom closet with Mummers costumes, she said, but it hasn’t fit into their budget.)

“It’s not always like a commercial opportunity,” Helton said. “Sometimes it’s just to kind of celebrate where we’re at, and that we love it here, and we love our customers, and we love the city that we’re in.”

Getting cute with safety signs at the South Philly Ikea. (Asha Prihar/Billy Penn)

Asha Prihar is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She has previously written for several daily newspapers across the Midwest, and she covered Pennsylvania state government and politics for The...