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Friday, October 21, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ikea's Grand Opening In Renton Is An Event -- Cheering Shoppers Pour Into Furniture Store

By the time the IKEA home-furnishings store was ready to open yesterday, Renton police had viewed films of other IKEA openings and had asked the Kent and Tukwila police to stand by in case of a mob scene.

The Red Cross van was standing by, in case of injuries, and more than three tons of Swedish meatballs and lingonberries had been flown in from Sweden. The Scandinavian dancers were ready to kick up their heels, and the greeters from the Swedish Women's Education Association had laughingly squeezed into their snug-waisted, traditional costumes.

Renton Mayor Earl Clymer was beaming for the TV cameras and welcoming IKEA (pronounced i-KEE-a) to Renton.

"Now I get to cut the ribbon, right?" he asked as he turned toward the entrance.

"The board," someone corrected gently, as Clymer seemed to notice for the first time that his way was blocked by a two-by-four resting on two glossy, black tubular sawhorses - IKEA's grand opening tradition.

Clymer's smile faded as an impossibly small Swedish handsaw was placed in his hands.

But the board had been nearly sawed through, the pieces split after a few strokes and a cheer rose from the crowd as several hundred shoppers poured through a gantlet of clapping, whooping IKEA employees.

Openings of IKEA are happenings, and not just because of the extravagant entertainment and the extra-low prices on the specials. At one opening in New Jersey, 3,000 bargain-hunters showed up in the

first 15 minutes, 27,000 in the first day. On grand-opening day, it's not unusual for roads leading to IKEA to be blocked for miles around.

The expectations for the Renton store were more modest, given a weather forecast of rain. Still, IKEA estimates that more than 20,000 showed up yesterday, exceeding expectations, and the store is preparing for 25,000 shoppers tomorrow.

Yesterday, traffic moved smoothly , there was little jostling in the store and, a few hours after the opening, the Red Cross reported that its duties so far had consisted of handing out a few Band-Aids.

Lines at check-out stands were long, though, and some customers complained. So today, the store is flying in experienced cashiers from other stores to help out.

What motivates a group of people equal to the population of Bothell to decamp to a giant, blue warehouse in Renton? Style, shoppers say, and low prices. Not to mention the intriguingly "foreign" experience of eating at a self-service Scandinavian restaurant, in a building painted the colors of Sweden's flag.

IKEA, founded in Sweden but now headquartered in Denmark, can offer low prices partly because of the leverage its size gives it, partly because it specializes in furniture that buyers assemble themselves. (The company's symbol is an Allen wrench.)

Upon entering, shoppers pick up pads, pencils, catalogs, measuring tapes and giant plastic shopping bags to note the names and warehouse locations of items on display. To keep things low-tech and customer-friendly, every product has a Scandinavian name - such as the Snurra vase, the Bomsund wicker chair, the Sydvast TV unit. (This area hasn't seen this many Scandinavian names since Stan Boresen and his Uncle Torvald went off the air.)

With 125 such warehouse-style stores internationally, and 13 in the United States, IKEA has learned that customers also appreciate being able to drop young children off in the ball room - a supervised room filled more than a foot deep with bright plastic balls - and borrowing roof racks and twine to haul boxes home.

What Elvis was to rock 'n' roll, IKEA is to the home furnishings business. It seems to attract intense loyalty, to the point of fanaticism, from shoppers.

At the Renton store opening, first in line was Nordstrom. Carole Nordstrom, that is, who left her Edmonds home a little after 5 a.m. to make sure she'd be among the first 100 shoppers and get a free prize, which turned out to be a 5-foot palm tree.

She's been shopping IKEA since she visited its store in Sweden 25 years ago, ordering through a Swedish catalog and having goods sent to her. So far, the mail has brought her a couch, two chairs, a coffee table, a huge mirror and lamps of every size and shape.

Inside the store, Tiffany Ledbetter plopped down on a green leather couch, a huge smile breaking across her face.

"I just can't believe it's finally here!" exclaimed Ledbetter, who has shopped IKEA stores in Pennsylvania, California and most recently, Vancouver, B.C., as she's moved across the country. "I couldn't sleep! I got up at 5 a.m.! I've been waiting for this for the longest time!"

Over in the children's furniture section, Neil Vora and his friends were equally ecstatic.

"We're IKEA junkies!" confided Vora, who recently moved here from California. "We had to be here on the first day. It's an institution. This is a historic occasion."

While some brought a shopping list, others brought a show-me attitude. It didn't always remain.

"I came in thinking, `I'm just going to look,' " said Kris Case, who was with her mother, Ruby Chapman. So far, she had ordered a glass table top. And that wasn't all.

"You'll notice," she said ruefully, indicating her giant, bulging IKEA shopping bag, "this bag is half full."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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