Deep in the woods of rural Sweden lies what can only be described as a Swedish Mecca. To this location, people travel from all over the country. The journey might take several hours, but it’s well worth it for them.
The place is a village called Ullared. And in Ullared is a massive low-price shopping centre called Gekås.
Surrounding the airline hanger that is Gekås are a variety of outlet stores, restaurants, a camp site, a hotel – all making the journey more attractive to the pilgrimaging bargain hunter. When I went to Ullared this week for the first time, I felt like I experienced another level of Swedish culture.
The car park itself was my first surprise, rows upon rows of vehicles that would put any Disneyland to shame. After parking the car, you walk towards the shopping centre like a trail of lemmings. On the way, you pick up a trolley large enough to house a small family. Each trolley is colour-coded and numbered so that it’s easy to locate should you step away from it inside the building. We walked straight into the store, but I’ve heard that it’s not unusual to wait a long time in a queue – sometimes due to the sheer volume of people, they adopt a one-out, one-in policy. Once inside, you are overwhelmed by the giganticness of the place, the thousands of customers, they yellow and blue blinding interior and the aisle upon aisle upon aisle of bargains. But the initial shock abates quickly. Within 10 seconds, I had purchased a frying pan and was trying to persuade a friend that they should buy individual hamburger thermometers.
All in all, I ended up with towels, sheets, underwear, freezer bags and a variety of other things. I left the place feeling satisfied with a job well done, even though I am an amateur when compared to many of the other shoppers there. Some seriously disturbed people even spend a week there, camping at the camp site and shopping every day.
It is hard to explain how legendary Ullared is in Sweden. Everyone has an opinion about it, it seems. At Gekås they turn over multibillions per annum. Employees and regular customers have become TV celebrities thanks to a reality show that follows life in this shopping Mecca and is broadcasted weekly on national television. At the local museum in Varberg, there is even a small exhibition about Ullared, which reflects its place in popular culture. It was there I learned that the average customer is a single mother of three, aged 42, who visits Ullared twice a year and spends 3600 sek each time.
So if you ever visit Sweden, and want to experience something outside of the usual red cottages, forests, lakes and beautiful cities, take a trip to Ullared. You never know what you might find there.