Representatives from IKEA introduced themselves to Westerville business leaders last week with a presentation before the Westerville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Joseph Roth, IKEA's U.S. Expansion and Property Public Affairs manager, and David Garcia, store manager, discussed the new store's process and status at a March 8 program, and took questions from the audience.

Much of the conversation focused on why Columbus, and central Ohio in general, was a good location for the in-demand company.

Roth said Columbus was already a logical choice but the overwhelming success of the IKEA in West Chester, Ohio, gave them a reason to speed up projects in Columbus and Fishers, Indiana.

"Columbus is a major metropolitan area that has a large population base, is very spread out and is fast-growing," he said. "So this is a good opportunity for us, and it's a sufficient distance from other places where we have stores, whether it's West Chester, Ohio; Canton, Michigan; or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania."

Chamber members who experienced the recession of the late 2000s wondered why IKEA continues to expand while other retailers move away from the model of big-box stores.

Garcia said IKEA customers are more loyal than others, but he also feels strongly about the market and demand.

"The market (will) provide enough population, enough interest in home furnishing, to support that, even in difficult moments," he said. "We have a large base of consumers, so even in difficult moments when the economy is struggling, it doesn't affect us. You kind of have even more responsibility to exceed expectations."

In Roth's view, IKEA is in a unique situation when compared to other businesses.

"With home furnishing, it's a little different than ordering an item or an airplane ticket online," he said. "A lot of folks still want to try out the sofa or lie down on the mattress, and still want to see these colors. It's still more difficult to return if you're ordering these items online."

The Columbus location, which will sit near the new Gemini Place extension just east of Interstate 71, is set to be a two-story, 350,000-square-foot store occupying 33 acres. When it opens, it will be the 44th IKEA location in the nation.

To staff the store, IKEA expects to hire around 250 employees, and Garcia said around 40 members of the recently organized leadership staff are already working and training.

"We're a company who emphasizes diversity," he said. "We try to gather people from different ages, different backgrounds, different experiences ... and different colors, so it's a really good group."

But those employees who are working on the site aren't ready to open the store yet, despite the outward appearance of the building. Its fully formed exterior and fresh paint led to security guards turning away 87 cars in one weekend, according to Garcia.

"From outside the store, it almost looks like it's finished," Garcia said with a laugh. "But it's not."

IKEA officials say it will open sometime this summer.

aking@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekAndrew