Sorry about the lack of posting for the last week or so. I've been spending a lot of my time buying and assembling flat-pack furniture. And I don't have enough to do a scientific survey, but during my brief stint in the social sciences, they tried to persuade me that a sample size of 1 was significant. So here is a "social scientific" survey of three different places to buy flat-pack. Please not this is not scientific and not based on exhaustive research. I didn't buy multiple copies of every single piece of flat pack furniture in the UK - that would have been silly... But I did buy pieces of comparable difficulty from John Lewis, Argos and IKEA.
Argos probably have the biggest range of the three. IKEA do a smaller range, but have far more options for each model. For example, Argos might sell 30 types of desk. IKEA will sell 8 or so, but a couple of them will come with 50 different options of size, height and so on, but all of roughly the same sort of quality. John Lewis have a dramatic range of quality, from desks that cost under £100 to ones that cost nearer £500 but they'll probably only do a dozen or so in total.
Ratings (out of 5): 3½ each
This quite surprised me. Yes, IKEA basically do chipboard with MDF coating and a veneer of wood. But it's pretty solid and takes weight, especially when I modify the instructions by judicious application of an adjustable wrench. If I didn't know what I was doing, IKEA stuff would have been wobbly though. Argos is often similar quality, but because the assembly methods tend to me more involved, they end up more stable. John Lewis will of course sell you furniture hand carved by a not-quite poor person living in some fashionable country (like India or Egypt) if you want, but their cheapest furniture is probably worse than you'd get for the same price at Argos.
Ratings (out of 5): IKEA 3, Argos 4, JL 4
IKEA is very good for price, but Argos is not far behind. John Lewis have a policy of being "never knowingly undersold", but that doesn't mean much when everything is sold as own brand, even when they're actually being produced by random small companies across Europe.
Ratings (out of 5): IKEA 5, Argos 4, JL 3
Instructions and Assembly
Once again, a surprise. IKEA instructions hardly had any words on - obviously aimed at an international and polyglot audience, but were actually very clear, and the product was easy to assemble. Admittedly, the table I made was then wobbly, but it was easy enough to modify so that it wasn't... Argos instructions were more complex, but pretty clear apart from the titles for each section, which seemed to have nothing to do with what was actually being done. John Lewis instructions seemed to have been translated from Danish by the person who came bottom of their class in English. Would you know which part of a chair the "flute" was? These were also the only instructions that I made a mistake in following...
Ratings (out of 5): IKEA 4, Argos 3½, JL 3
For some items, this doesn't matter (like bookcases). For others it does (like sofas). It's also Argos's biggest weakness. They've got a few shops where you can try out sofas and so on, but not many. IKEA have a few big shops where you can try pretty much everything. John Lewis have more shops where you can try a lot of things.
Ratings: IKEA 4, Argos 2, JL 4½
Access and Delivery
Argos let you pick most stuff up from almost any of their many shops, or will deliver any number of items for less than £6 in total within 2 days. John Lewis don't let you take so much home, but offer free delivery on a lot of their stuff, but in my case it was slow (about a week) and by Parcelforce. IKEA charge a minimum of £35 for delivery, though of course you can pick most of their stuff (but not sofas) up from stores if you can fit them in your car!
Ratings: IKEA 2, Argos 5, JL 3½
Just adding all the numbers up, which assumes those areas are all equal, which they aren't, you get these completely unscientific ratings out of 30...
IKEA 21½, Argos 22, JL 21½
So Argos is the winner by a whisker!