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IKEA invades NC furniture country

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When IKEA comes to town, it's nothing short of a Swedish invasion - from the bright blue and yellow building in the colors of the Swedish flag, right down to the menu: "We serve Swedish meatballs in the restaurant, yes" says IKEA spokesman Joseph Roth. "But I mean it's more than just instilling Swedishness. We're really instilling the values of good function and good design at affordable prices." Roth bristles a little at the notion of a "Swedish invasion." But it's hard to ignore the fact that everything in the store is bears the IKEA brand and a hard-to-decipher Swedish name like Ektorp or Poang. During a tour of the showroom, Roth points out a package of IKEA napkins that say "Made in the USA." "So, when you least expect it, turn it over," says Roth. "It may say China. It may say USA, it may say Sweden." In fact, last year IKEA opened its first U.S. manufacturing plant in Virginia, which Roth says is part of the company's strategy to cut down on the cost of shipping to its U.S. stores. IKEA's low prices and minimalist designs have developed a cult-like following since its first U.S. store opened in 1985. Customers are known to travel for hours and camp on the sidewalk to be first inside a new store. "They used to start way too early - like three and a half weeks," says Roth. "Now we say only 48 hours in advance." Those same customers - though 'fanatics' might be a better word - often come in moving vans to haul their treasures home, just like the people who've come here for decades to buy directly from factories that made this the nation's furniture capital. Only a handful of those factories still exist. But the Hickory Furniture Mart remains open for business. "We actually, on average, have 38 states that visit the Mart every single week," says Tracy Trimble, executive vice president of the furniture mart. "So we still are a major destination for furniture shoppers from all over." Mellow music pipes softly through the furniture mart's labyrinth of stores. It's nearly deserted on a Monday afternoon. She says the typical furniture mart customer is retired, financially secure and owns multiple homes. Like Claudia Brantley who's shopping with her tape measure in hand. "Today I'm just looking for a table, like by our side chair," says Brantley. She comes from South Carolina a few times a year. She's never even heard of IKEA. And when she learns she'd have to assemble an IKEA side table herself? "Oh no, I'm not interested," Brantley says immediately. "I don't care if it's five dollars. I'm not interested." A few miles from the furniture mart, Jay Reardon inhales a mix of wood stain and sawdust in the Hickory Chair factory he runs. Hickory Chair is a North Carolina holdout. Most of its competitors have shuttered their factories and moved jobs overseas. Reardon opted instead to keep his 450 employees and turn Hickory Chair upside down: "What we've decided is we're gonna compete by doing things that makes the consumer feel like they've got something very special they've hand-selected for their home," says Reardon. Five to seven years ago, Hickory Chair was cranking out batches of identical sofas, chairs and tables for sale mainly at large furniture stores like Boyles or Bloomingdales. Today, Reardon says 70 percent of his business is custom orders through boutiques and designers. There are no assembly lines in the factory; rather, rows of individual workshops turning out pieces priced at the highest end of the furniture spectrum. The fabric, finishes and small details are all made-to-order: Reardon points out a nearly finished green sofa. "Here's that same sofa but someone wanted a leather seat with a velvet outside," he say. "So you can see this was really hand-selected. There's not another sofa like this, probably in your neighborhood." And definitely not at IKEA, where you know someone else in town - and probably in Turkey or Taiwan, too - has your sofa. Reardon knows Hickory Chair can't compete with IKEA's prices or instant gratification. So he's after the people who want to invest in a piece of furniture like art to last for generations. As long as those customers exist, he says there's plenty of room for IKEA in the America's furniture heartland.