The Flatpack Challenge

In which The Author assembles some furniture

When people move house, they’re often surprised by the sheer number of possessions they’ve managed to accumulate. My own collection of over a thousand books (a total that increases steadily by at least one new title a fortnight) has been well documented in a couple of previous entries. To date, they occupy a goodly portion of eleven three-shelf bookcases in my front room, seven shelves in my middle room, two large bookcases on the landing, and two shelves in my bedroom. Even taking the expansion gaps into account, that’s still a substantial personal library. (Amazingly, it’s nowhere near as big as those of some of my friends.)
However, I hadn’t realised just how many DVDs I’ve collected over the years. The problem first became apparent just after Xmas, when Argos had their traditional end of catalogue sale.
[A digression: For those of you outside the UK, who may not be familiar with Argos, here’s a brief explanation:
Argos is a large store chain with a very unusual trading system. All their products can be found in the huge full-colour Argos Catalogue, which comes out a few times a year (and which is now available online, of course.) You can browse their entire range in the comfort of your own home, and nowadays you can even check local stock availability and reserve items online.
It has its pros and cons, of course. It means that their shops don’t need to act as display rooms for every line – which would be nigh on impossible! In Dillons we used to stock some 50,000 titles in a shop measuring 8,500 square feet. With some odd exceptions, however, books are pretty much of similar dimensions and easy to shelve. Argos, on the other hand, carries virtually everything from tea towels and toilet brushes to garden sheds and double beds. They’d need a warehouse the size of a small town if they wanted to keep everything on display.
It also means that you’re ‘buying blind’ a lot of the time, of course. I probably wouldn’t buy a large piece of furniture or a high-end electronics product from them, as I’d want to see the real thing first. For smaller items, though, it’s a useful way to shop without having to make your way into (or, more likely these days, out of) town.
The business model aside, shopping in Argos is an intriguing process. Once you’ve selected your item(s) from the catalogues on display, you can either pay for them using the self-service checkout, or take your little slip of paper to the counter. The assistant keys your choices into the till, verifying your order before taking your money. After you’ve paid, you get another slip of paper, which you produce at a different counter (the ‘collection point’) in order to receive your purchase. Finally, you get a third slip of paper, which is your receipt/guarantee, and leave with your goods.
It’s a rather Byzantine system, reminiscent of buying a book in Foyle’s in London during the 1970s and early 1980s. Still, it must virtually eliminate shoplifting, and with the spread of ‘just in time’ distribution, it probably keeps their costs to a minimum. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, this business model obviously works; the company notched up over four billion pounds’ worth of sales in 2009.
In the larger stores, such as the one in Cardiff, there are a number of collection points, and you queue up at the one listed on your receipt. When the shop in Aberdare first opened, there was only one till at the end of the counter. I remember buying something in the early days and being given my slip by the cashier, who told me to queue at ‘collection point A.’ As there’s no physical division between the collection points, that seemed a bit odd to begin with. When my order had been processed, the same girl handed it to me. I still wonder whether she’d have been as obliging if I’d queued a few inches further down the counter.]
Anyway, January’s ‘end of catalogue’ sale items included a tall, narrow self-assembly stand for CDs and/or DVDs. It had been reduced to half price, and seemed ideal for my needs. I went online and checked availability, and wasn’t surprised by my findings. In keeping with the buying policy of the smaller stores, there was only one in stock. I reserved it straight away and collected it the following afternoon. It was a Sunday, and by the time I’d got to town it was hammering down with rain. I called into The Glosters for a pint in between buses, and one thing led to another. I didn’t want to risk the cardboard wrapping getting soaked and possibly collapsing before I got it home. Susanne let me stash my purchase away in a cupboard before I left for the bus, and I picked it up a few days later, once the weather had improved.
According to the catalogue description of the stand, the manufacturers recommended ‘two-person assembly.’ The enclosed instruction leaflet also said that it could take ‘up to an hour’ to put it together. I’m used to flatpacks by now, of course, having built all those bookcases over the years. Even taking account of an initial false start, it took me less than half an hour to rig it up. The glue holding the top section in place had to dry overnight, of course, but in the morning I was ready to start sorting out my DVD collection.
A few minutes later I was back on the Argos website, checking stock availability again. I hadn’t realised just how many DVDs I’d bought over the years, and I needed another one to accommodate the rest. Fortunately, there was a single stand in the Aberdare branch, so once again I reserved it and picked it up in the afternoon.
The second assembly time was a considerable improvement on the first. Once the glue had dried, I started putting the rest of my DVDs away. I’m sure you can guess what happened next…
As I told you in Straightforward? Pah!, there’s no such thing as a straightforward DIY job. I went back to the Argos website and checked the stock again. Then I realised why the item had been in the ‘end of catalogue’ sale in the first place. Every shop within a twenty-mile radius was out of stock. I called into the Aberdare store that afternoon, and asked the assistant whether they’d be having any more delivered. There are no prizes for guessing the answer to that question.
The new catalogue hit the streets a few days later, and I wasn’t surprised to see an almost identical product within its pages. Needless to say, it was back up to full price. Yesterday, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and picked it when I was in town. Then I called to The Glosters, where one thing (again) led to another. I brought my flatpack home on the last bus, but didn’t fancy trying to put it together last night.
I did it this afternoon instead. I was hoping for an improvement on my previous time, but I was defeated by the ‘improved product specifications.’ Instead of using glued dowel joints, this one is held together with screws throughout. That little design tweak, and the further development that the back now has to be tacked in place, rather than sliding into a groove as previously, meant that I failed to break my record.
The good news, however, is that all my DVDs are now safely displayed on matching stands. I’ve even got some expansion gaps, in case I spot something which takes my fancy next time I’m in Cardiff. Even better, they’re almost exactly as wide as the tread on my staircase is deep. Without losing much room, I can line them up against the wall of the stairwell, freeing up valuable space in my middle room. The job (finally!) is a good ‘un.
Yesterday, a few of us were talking about the hell of flatpack furniture which is IKEA. I’ve never been into one of their stores, as I find the whole prospect daunting in the extreme. Apparently customers have to follow a strict one-way system through the entire store, placing their own items on the trolleys as they go. It all seems too much like hard work. I’ll stick to Argos and B&Q for now.
Having said that, the Swedish superstore did inspire a Milton Jones-style status on my Facebook on New Year’s Eve last year, which got more ‘likes’ than anything else I’ve ever posted:
This afternoon I sang in front of a packed house in Cardiff. As a result, I’m now banned from every UK branch of IKEA.