STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Sometimes a store is more than a store, especially if the store in question has plenty of comfortably furniture and a nice cafeteria. Twice a week an informal lonely hearts club gathers inside an IKEA store, an outlet of the worldwide furniture chain in Shanghai. People gather at IKEA hoping free coffee and conversation, and maybe a date.
IKEA says the group is messing up their business and wants them out. But when you meet some of the people, you learn a lot about IKEA and about its relationship with a changing China.
Here's NPR's Frank Langfitt.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The pensioners begin arriving around one in the afternoon and fill nearly 20 tables in the store cafeteria. They sit for hours, drinking coffee, gossiping and subtly checking each other out.
Ge, a smartly dressed 50-year-old, retired this year.
GE: (Through Translator) You can find a boyfriend or girlfriend or just make friends and chat. It makes you a little bit happier.
LANGFITT: Ge's friend, surnamed Han, is a retired bus ticket seller. She says IKEA is a good place to meet people if you're divorced or widowed.
HAN: (Through Translator) There's matchmaking. A lot of matchmaking.
LANGFITT: Ge explains.
GE: (Through Translator) If I meet a guy and he's appropriate for me, we can call each other. But if he finds someone more suitable for me, he'll help and introduce me to the other guy.
LANGFITT: The women refuse to give their full names. They don't want their families to know they visit IKEA. Han says it's just too embarrassing.
HAN: (Through Translator) When we go out, we don't tell people we're going here. We tell them that we're going to a tea house. We don't tell them that we go to IKEA, because IKEA is the place to find boyfriends and girlfriends.
LANGFITT: Retirees began coming to the IKEA in Shanghai's Xuhui District about three years ago. The phenomenon is a result of the nation's rising divorce rate, changing demographics and the comfort of the stores themselves.
Shao, he won't give his first name either, is 70. He used to work as a manager at a local Unilever factory.
SHAO: (Through Translator) Shanghai has become an aging society with many single senior citizens. They need to make friends; they feel lonely at home. So what IKEA does is laudable and we wish IKEA's business will prosper. I am thankful for IKEA's tolerance towards us.
LANGFITT: Actually, IKEA's tolerance has pretty much run out. The company is tired of the lonely hearts drinking gallons of coffee but never buying anything. Recently, when some lonely hearts became unruly, IKEA cordoned off a section of the cafeteria to pen them in.
IKEA managers refused to discuss the problem - they don't want the publicity - but they have posted a sign. It reads: Your behavior is affecting the normal operations of the IKEA cafeteria. Frequent fights and arguments do serious harm to the image both of Shanghai residents and IKEA.
Torsten Stocker studies consumer products in China for Monitor Group, a U.S.-based management consulting company. He says Chinese feel comfortable being themselves in IKEA because the shopping experience is so different from most here.
TORSTEN STOCKER: It feels more like a place of leisure, rather than a place where you would go to buy furniture. It represents also the nice homes that, to some extent, they aspire to and that they would like to have.
LANGFITT: In fact, some Chinese have always treated IKEA like an extension of their own homes. When the first store opened in Beijing in 1998, people napped on the beds. Families camped out on sofa sets, reading newspapers, drinking tea from glass jars and eating biscuits.
Ms. Ge, one of the lonely hearts, admits they don't treat the company very well.
GE: (Through Translator) I don't think it's appropriate because this is a money-making business. The best thing would be if we had places like this in our own community. Even if there is no coffee or tea, we can bring our own.
LANGFITT: For now, IKEA and the lonely hearts are in an uneasy truce. The long-suffering Swedes are unwilling to force the Chinese seniors out. And the lonely hearts don't want to give up IKEA's modern comforts and all that free coffee.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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