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What is Flat Packing?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated: May 17, 2024

Flat packing is a way of preparing furniture so that it can be easily shipped in constituent parts and assembled on location. It has become very popular in recent years because of its convenience for consumers and stores, and its cheaper costs. Flat packing is most recognized by American consumers for its use in the popular IKEA chain of stores, which are largely based on the idea of flat packing affordable and stylish furniture. Flat packing is also sometimes referred to as ready-to-assemble (RTA) furniture, or knock-down furniture.

The idea is relatively recent, and was developed by a Swedish designer, who was working for the then much smaller company IKEA. Unable to fit a table he wanted to transport home into his car, he broke the legs off of it so it could fit into the back. When he got home, he then reassembled it. When he told the concept to his employer, they loved it, and eventually built their business model around the concept.

The benefits of flat packing are many, and in a number of ways change the landscape of furniture sale at the low- to mid-level of pricing. Traditionally, there was a fairly high bottom price set for furniture, because of a number of considerations. Furniture takes up a great deal of warehouse space, because it is so large, it needs to be assembled in a factory, requiring a large space and workers, and it needs to be transported, taking up a great deal of truck, train, or ship space, all of which add to the overhead.

Flat packing, on the other hand, eliminates or reduces a great deal of these costs. Because flat packing turns otherwise large furniture pieces into compact slabs that can be stacked on top of each other and easily stowed, it takes up only a fraction of the warehouse and cargo space of traditional furniture. And because customers assemble the furniture themselves, assembly lines and the accompanying workforce are unneeded. The combination of all of these reductions allows for costs to be substantially lower than traditionally manufactured furniture, and these savings are largely passed on to the consumer.

Usually stores that carry flat-packed furniture have large display areas where potential buyers can see what the finished furniture will look like. Massive stores like IKEA set up sample rooms, filled with flat-packed furniture and accompaniments, giving customers a general sense of the sorts of design aesthetics they can build with the furniture. Once the customer finds something they like, they note the product number, and move on to the warehouse of the store, where the flat-packed version of the furniture can be found and put on a dolly or large cart. From there, the furniture can be fit into a car or truck, and brought home, without the need for a special delivery van.

When a customer buys a flat-packed furniture set, what they are buying are all of the necessary parts to assemble it. This usually includes all of the wooden pieces in their flat form, and various fasteners like dowels or screws, as well as struts and supports. Instructions are also included, and most flat-packed sets also include basic tools for assembly. In a few hours of work, the furniture is assembled and is ready for use, just as if it had been delivered from the store.

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Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Mar 16, 2014

@AnswerMan, I know what you're talking about. I put together a flat-packed computer desk one time, and the drawer wouldn't open. I finally discovered I had put the drawer assembly in upside-down. It looked right on the instructions, but not in reality.

By AnswerMan — On Mar 15, 2014

I have bought a few flat-packed pieces of furniture over the years, and I do have to say it's nice to be able to carry a box into my house instead of a whole entertainment center or coffee table. Most of the time, the assembly process only involves putting two pieces together and tightening them down with an Allen wrench or other tool. A 12 year old could probably put most of these things together.

What I don't like about flat-packed furniture is the time it takes to finally get it all together. There's usually one piece that doesn't fit quite right, and you can't risk putting a $1200 television on a table that wiggles. I'll have most of it put together in less than an hour, but then spend more time trying to get one piece to fit right.

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