IKEA's Surprise Holiday Bonus for Employees: Bikes for All

Ikea bicycle given to emplyeesFor retail employees, holiday bonuses tend toward the low-cash-value gift certificate -- and it's not unusual to get gift cards for your own store, or nearby casual-dining chains. For years, the IKEA stores have been rather run-of-the-mill in this regard. Last year, according to one employee, the IKEA store in Portland, Ore., gave its employees the usual restaurant gift certificates.

This year, the Portland store was one of the last to get a surprise: at 9:30 a.m. local time Tuesday in all the company's U.S. stores, every employee was given a box containing the parts for a brand-new bicycle, 12,400 in all.The bike is designed specifically for IKEA employees, and won't be sold in stores, but it doesn't even have an IKEA logo. "We don't want people to think we manufacture bicycles," company spokeswoman Mona Liss told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Still, it looks like something IKEA might make, thanks to the flat box, the bike in pieces and one of IKEA's iconic instruction booklets.

In addition to being proffered as a way to say "thanks IKEA co-workers for being strongly committed to working together," the bike was meant as a symbol and an inducement, "supporting a healthy lifestyle and everyday sustainable transport," according to comments from IKEA US President Mike Ward. Bicycling burns calories; bicycling helps prevent coronary heart disease and obesity; bicycling is good for your body. Plus, it's good for the health of the planet we call home: a 4-mile round trip by bike keeps 15 pounds of pollutants out of the air.

A committed family biker myself, I've often discussed the savings I've earned through this transportation alternative. I've estimated I save between $200 and $1,000 a month based on differing assumptions about the health, age and luxury of my car (the one I gave up for biking cost about $800 a month average over the seven years I owned it). The IKEA press release mentions fuel savings for individual commutes and an estimate of $8,000 a year in savings per year for an all-in change in transportation choices.

The high cost of buying a reliable bike when you're already spending for a car is one reason many people are reluctant to take the plunge into bike commuting. But my friends (and I) say that once you start pedaling, it's hard to look back. Workers interviewed in Portland and Philadelphia said this would be an impetus to get them out biking.

Could this be an uncannily brilliant move by the Swedish retailer known for its quirky genius? I think so. Not only might a bicycle bonus end up saving their employees lots of money, yielding an unexpected value (far better than that bloomin' onion and juicy hamburger, for sure), but it could end up yielding benefits to the company, as well, in lower health care costs and happier employees. There's plenty of research to show that exercise is good for your mood; and I have oodles of anecdotal evidence to prove that riding a bike soothes just about any worry.

A holiday bonus of a new bicycle could pay dividends, not just in employee morale this month, but in morale for months and even years to come.

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