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International Business: Size matters in global product marketing

IKEA store in Chengdu, China, on Jan 28, 2011.
IKEA store in Chengdu, China, on Jan 28, 2011.
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The story is told of a Texas farmer vacationing in Australia where he meets an Aussie farmer. When the Aussie shows off his wheat field, the Texan boasts, “Oh, we have wheat fields twice as large back home!”

They walk to another field where the Aussie shows off his herd of cattle, and the Texan again boasts, “Oh, we have longhorns that are twice as big!”

A short while later, the Texan spots some kangaroos hopping across a field and asks, “What in the world are those?”

“What?” replies the Aussie with feigned astonishment. “Don’t you have grasshoppers in Texas?”

Whether boast-worthy or not, natural and man-made products often differ in size from country to country. Companies that export internationally will benefit from knowing how size differences influence the products they sell.

When entering new markets, Swedish furniture retailer IKEA has seen its success affected by how well it has adapted – or failed to adapt – the size of its furniture products. IKEA told Businessweek that it learned the hard way from early blunders in the United States.

In the early 1990s, “Beds were measured in centimeters, not king, queen and twin. Sofas weren't deep enough, curtains were too short, and (showroom) kitchens didn't fit U.S.-size appliances.”

"American customers were buying vases to drink from because the glasses were too small," recalled Goran Carstedt, the former head of IKEA North America, who helped engineer a turnaround.

Since that time, IKEA has not only adapted sizes for the majority of North Americans, but also for smaller populations like the U.S. Latino market. The retailer sent designers to visit Latino homes, where they learned that Latino families are often larger than families in other cultures and therefore need larger dining tables and sofas to fit everyone.

Conversely, IKEA found that smaller product size was the key in Japan. The company first entered Japan in 1974, but left 12 years later after failing to meet market needs. Twenty years later, the furniture giant returned with a more successful focus on “small space living,” which is the reality for most Japanese homes.

Sometimes product size will be dictated by personal preference, such as Chinese preference for roomier backseats in automobiles. Other times, product size preferences will be even more practical, such as the need for Japanese cars to fit in traditionally small parking spaces. Some car models have failed miserably in Japan because they were only 12 inches too long for most Japanese parking garages.

The size of the average person can also determine product size. In one of its theme parks, Disney initially installed U.S.-height payphones that were several inches too high for the nation’s average patrons. The average Chilean is smaller than the average American, so I had a difficult time finding shoes there that would fit my size-12 feet. Likewise, Filipinos also tend to be more diminutive, for which reason I did not have much selection to choose from when purchasing a barong Tagalog, a traditional embroidered shirt, to wear to a Filipino wedding.

Differences in product size also apply to food items. Starbucks, for instance, offers smaller portions in Japan. Some grocery items are also smaller in Japan simply because the average household size is also smaller.

Finally, as illustrated by the problem with bed sizes at IKEA, sometimes measurements are also standardized differently in other countries. These differences in measurement are not always a matter of converting to and from the metric system. Standard letter paper size in the United States may be 8.5 inches by 11 inches, but it is A4 in most other countries. Similarly, business card dimensions also vary by country.

Before exporting, companies will experience greater successes by ensuring products are the correct sizes for international target markets. Otherwise, headaches may be “super-sized” while revenues come up short.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at BYU. E-mail: . Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten..