Billy the bookshelf seeks an understanding home: In Sweden people have more Ikea furniture than they know what to do with. It'll never catch on here, says Tim Moore

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'BILLY, seven years old, black, well looked after, only 120Kr.' Classified advertisements such as this may surprise Britain's loyal army of Ikea shoppers, but in Sweden they pass without comment.

Billy is not a homeless orphan but a bookcase, part of Ikea's range of furniture. He is one of hundreds of items, with names such as Ralf and Viktor, that are being trafficked through the pages of local newspapers.

This trade is unlikely to cross the North Sea. Sentimental Britons will hang on to little Billy for as long as he is capable of holding up his books. However, Sweden, home of the Ikea lifestyle store, has more of the quaintly named furniture than it knows what to do with.

The Ikea phenomenon may be in its infancy here, but in Sweden shoppers no longer find the idea of bookshelves and kitchen clocks with names such as Billy and Chris ridiculous - if, indeed, they ever did. Ikea's 1992 catalogue memorably proclaims: 'If there were a Nobel prize for bookcases, Billy would win it for certain.' Billy and Chris are cultural icons, standard-bearers of the chipboard, wipe-clean, Scandinavian way. Advertisements such as the one above appear in classified columns specifically devoted to second-hand Ikea furniture.

At the enormous Stockholm Ikea, a building so formidable that it is named on city maps with the prominence normally accorded to houses of parliament, there is further evidence of the slavish personality cult that has developed around items of furniture such as Bert the drawer unit and Klippan the sofa bed. Each piece stands in a softly lit pool of reverent hush, surrounded by worshippers sporting walrus moustaches, expensive leisure-wear and blank expressions. Above towers a shrine to Billy the bookshelf, a flat-pack Fuhrer whose name graces a forest of in-store banners.

Scandinavians grow up with Ikea. The company's marketing genius has been to create expandable systems that grow with your income and family. One can imagine Swedes whiling away long winter nights over old photo albums: 'Look at Ralf in this one] Just a cheeky little six-drawer basic unit]'

'Oh, bless him, here's Fritz getting his first interior lighting]'

'Remember when Ted had that trouble with his feet - here's Dad knocking them back in . . . he looked much brighter when we moved Albert over.'

And when the grim reaper calls, you can make full use of the large Kabinett, which in its last incarnation could make a handy coffin.

Sweden's Ikeas have nothing left to prove. Not for them the banks of infernal drawer-slamming devices, common in UK stores, that put a Ralf through the equivalent of two generations of abuse in an afternoon. Swedes are born knowing that Volvos are built like tanks and Ikea furniture is as tough as tank-traps - only later do they discover that both have similar performance and handling characteristics. Cockroaches can rest assured that, as sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust, they will still have somewhere to display their knick-knacks.

Ikea's Stockholm branch is filled with an air of supreme commercial harmony, of being so obviously and completely right that there is no longer any point shouting about it. The life-sized cutouts of trowel-wielding Swedes - so oafishly endearing in the UK stores - seem arrogant and smug when viewed on their home soil.

Plans to attain full Ikea nirvana abroad are doomed. On a practical level, Ikea cannot expect its Nordic tastes and customs to dovetail neatly with those of the uncivilised world. The huge piles of windowsill Christmas lights languishing in British stores will continue to grow pending the next Viking resettlement of our land.

Furthermore, the British are acutely sensitive to ridiculous brand names: one has only to think back to the commercial failure of Lollygobblechocbombs to realise this. Ikea has tested this sensitivity with Ralf, Billy and Hubert the shoe-tidy, but its Burk range of spaghetti jars and Pimp fabrics are surely going too far.

The major stumbling block in this country, however, is customer honesty - or rather the lack of it. Swedes do not stagger back to the car park with bulging holdalls of complimentary pencils and tapemeasures. Ikea's north London branch features displays of reproduction televisions and video-recorders; at its Stockholm outlet the real things are on show, all still boasting a full complement of knobs. A restaurant offer of free ice-cream for children who finish their main course would result in queues of stubborn adults if it were instituted in the company's Gateshead outlet. Most astonishing is the 'gratisbuss' that ferries people from central Stockholm to the distant suburban superstore. No fare, no obligation to buy - and no back seat full of freeloading commuters.

Pity poor Birger Lund, the UK manager whose kindly, pullovered form gazes paternally from the catalogue's inside cover. As he watches heartless customers ignore the finer points of his furniture and tear piles of in-store brochures asunder to get at the money-saving coupons on page 57, one can imagine his gentle Nordic tones coming over the Tannoy: 'Dear shoppers, I'm not angry - just very, very sad . . . .'

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