Battle of Edmonton: chaos as 6,000 rush for bargains at Ikea opening

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The Independent Online
FOR 12 HOURS, Karyn Christian was among those who waited patiently at the head of the queue outside Ikea's new store in north London on Wednesday, ready to snap up the amazing offers when the doors opened at midnight.

With prices as low as pounds 45 for a three-seater leather sofa and pounds 30 for a double-bed frame, the bargains seemed too good to miss. Unfortunately, some 6,000 other people felt the same way.

When midnight arrived, the crowd stormed the doors and pandemonium reigned among those who managed to get inside, with tempers flaring, threats being exchanged and punches being thrown. The store had to close after unprecedented scenes which left 20 people being treated for heat exhaustion and about half a dozen needing treatment in hospital for minor injuries.

Ms Christian, 38, a civil servant, said: "There were people who each had one end of a sofa and were pulling in different directions, both shouting, `It's mine.' Some were lying on sofas that people were trying to take away. It was total chaos. In fact, chaos was an understatement. I've never seen anything like it in my life.''

As the seventh person in the queue, Ms Christian had been given a voucher and assured of being among the lucky 500 to get a sofa. But she sprained an ankle in the crush and had to scrap the rest of her planned purchases and abandon her car.

Yesterday, the doors remained firmly shut, with security guards turning away a stream of potential customers, some of whom had travelled from many parts of the South-east. Meanwhile managers of Ikea in Britain and Sweden conducted an agonised post-mortem into what went horribly wrong on Wednesday night. The store is expected to quietly reopen today or tomorrow, with its opening offers rescinded.

"We are really, really sorry. We are in total shock," said John Olie, Ikea's deputy country manager for the UK. He admitted that Ikea had not been prepared for 6,000 people to turn up and that its 700 employees and 45 security guards had been overwhelmed. "I've been involved with all our other 12 store openings in the United Kingdom, when we have had similar offers, and we have only ever had about 2,000 people turning up," Mr Olie said.

At 28,500 sq ft, the store, just off the North Circular Road in Edmonton, is the largest Ikea branch in Britain, and had been backed by an extensive, typically off-beat advertising campaign, based on the ironic concept of "Elite Designers Against Ikea". Advertisements featuring the bargains, urging people to come before 3am to snap one up, had been placed this week in local newspapers and Tube stations.

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, said: "Ikea must have known that opening the store next to the second most deprived constituency in London people would flock to their store in large numbers. They did not put in place the right infrastructure to deal with that."

He was backed by one potential customer yesterday. "This is a classy place, for Tottenham. Who wouldn't want a pounds 45 settee around here?'' said Bee McKenzie, 31.

Earlier, there had been no sign of trouble. The first arrivals were given vouchers and Ikea staff brought out food and hot drinks, and, in the evening, blankets to keep people warm.

As midnight approached, the crowds began to grow. The Ikea car park failed to cope, traffic backed up on to the dual carriageway of the North Circular, one of London's busiest roads, jams built up and some drivers panicked at not being able to reach the store. "It was dog eat dog up on the roundabout," said Carole Forster, 56, from Norfolk. Cars drove across roundabouts and reversed up the dual carriageway into oncoming traffic. Others parked illegally on the side of the road or on pavements.

Outside the store, the orderly queue was swamped. Merrison Gittens, 48, from Luton, said the situation got out of control when an Ikea employee told crowds in the car park they had "no hope" of getting a sofa. "Then everybody decided, we are surging forward. It was absolutely shambolic.''

Mr Gittens said customers had repeatedly warned security guards that the crowds were likely to storm the store. "A lot of the security men just ran away."

Inside, Mr Olie said it had all been going "very smoothly'' as the first people were let in. "But then they gathered all around the store and tried to come in through all the doors. We closed the doors and tried to let in one person at a time but then they came in force.''

Emma Wilson, 18, from Essex, said the crowd "charged towards the entrance". She said: "Both my dad and boyfriend who had been queuing with me were taken out of sight and I was crushed against the concrete pillar and into the rows of shopping trolleys. I stood screaming because I was so scared."

Police reinforcements arrived to keep order, but upstairs conflict broke out amid the furniture and at least one child had to be lifted to safety above people's heads. Ikea managers, fearing a Hillsborough-style disaster, decided to close the store. It had been open just 42 minutes.

Mr Olie said Ikea would be reviewing its policy on openings. However, there are precedents - in September, three people died and 16 were injured in a crush when Ikea opened a store in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Back in London, there was one further indignity for Ms Christian. As she recovered from her ordeal, the sofa was delivered to her home yesterday morning - but it was the wrong one.

Leading article, page 38

Terence Blacker, page 41