The iconic Billy bookcase from Ikea helped transform the Swedish retailer into a global giant, cemented its reputation as the go-to source for stylish, inexpensive knock-down furniture, and made Ikea’s Scandinavian founder Ingvar Kamprad a billionaire.
Billy, meet Danny. In the Jysk Bed Bath Home store in Surrey, B.C., the Danny bookcase stands amid oddly familiar looking futons, desks and chairs. Never heard of Jysk (pronounced Yisk)? It’s a Danish retailer that’s emerged as a global giant, is known for inexpensive knock-down furniture, and has made its Scandinavian founder Lars Larsen a billionaire. Oh, and with the exact same dimensions and style as Billy, Danny just happens to be 15 per cent cheaper, too.
Over the past 15 years, Jysk has plotted one of the stealthiest, albeit quirky, retail invasions in Canada. From its Canadian head office near Vancouver, the discount chain operates 40 stores from coast to coast, yet has almost no national brand recognition. Now, while the retail world is abuzz over Target’s impending arrival from the U.S. in 2013, the Danes are plotting a hyper-expansion of their own here. Jysk is set to open at least 20 new stores a year over the next three years in a bid to make Jysk a household name. “We’ve survived and thrived for 15 years by offering Canadians quality for the lowest price,” says Ludvik Kristjansson, the CEO of Jysk’s Canadian operations. “I see no limit to how much we can grow.”
Jysk may not have anything like the profile Ikea enjoys, but its rise has been ambitious nonetheless. From his first store in the Danish port city of Aarhus in 1979, Larsen quickly rolled out the chain across the region. With an early focus on bedding, Larsen soon became known as the “King of Duvets” in Europe. (The company says it sources more duvets and pillows than any other retailer in the world.) Today the company boasts 1,750 home furnishing stores in 34 countries, with three new stores opening each week.
Jysk’s first foray into Canada came in 1996, in Coquitlam, B.C., of all places. The store was set up by Jakup Jacobsen, an Icelander-Dane who had bought the franchise rights for North America and Eastern Europe from Larsen. Kristjansson, a native of Iceland who’d been working in Montreal at the time at a grocery chain, joined the company the following year. He recalls a tough few years at first, as Jysk struggled to open additional stores throughout B.C.’s Lower Mainland. But gradually, Jysk spread out across Western Canada. Then, five years ago, the first Ontario store popped up in another unlikely location—Windsor. The chain now has 16 stores east of Winnipeg and plans to eventually boost that number to 80. Kristjansson sees a three-year window of relative peace for Canadian retailers to strengthen themselves before Target’s arrival, so in addition to opening new stores, Jysk is investing heavily to revamp its existing outlets. By 2015, Kristjansson predicts a brutal price war unlike anything Canada has ever seen will break out—and it’s one he intends to win.
Those who visit Jysk stores will no doubt be struck by the Ikea-ness of many of its products. The Poäng rocking chair, another famous standby at the Swedish retailer, has a doppelgänger at Jysk named the Kastrup that can be had for 30 per cent less. In online consumer forums, shoppers regularly compare items from the two stores and debate their merits. Some see no difference, while others claim Jysk products are less sturdy, though both chains import most of their goods from China anyway.
Jysk makes no effort to conceal the similarities between itself and Ikea. “There is room for two or three Scandinavian partners in Canada as long as you stay in your quality and price range,” says Kristjansson. “The strategy is not to go around Ikea or on top of them, it’s just to go with them, and has been from day one.” It helps that Jysk stores, at around 20,000 square feet, are tiny by comparison. The Ikea store in Coquitlam could fit seven hockey rinks. As such, Jysk is able to target smaller markets like Kamloops, B.C., Lethbridge, Alta., and, later this year, Kitchener and Barrie in Ontario. “There might be room for 20 Ikeas in Canada, but there’s room for 200 Jysks,” he says.