Packing for college used to involve putting clothing in a trunk, a dictionary and a handful of pens in a backpack and heading off to a dorm room that for most people was more spartan than accommodations at home.
No more. As today's high school students become tomorrow's college freshmen, they are increasingly trying to re-create at school the filled-to-the-ceiling bedrooms they're leaving behind. That means that even before books and tuition, new students are spending thousands of dollars each on televisions, cordless telephones, microwaves, mini-refrigerators, inflatable furniture and a host of other items to give their dorm rooms all the comforts of home and then some--besides Mom, that is.
Lining up to sell them all these "must-haves" are discount mass merchants, linens superstores and a variety of other retailers who target college-bound teens with direct mail, newspaper circulars and personal outreach campaigns in an effort to gain a piece of what the National Retail Federation estimates is a $6.4-billion market.
New players are also joining the fray, including a new Web site dedicated to dorm decor. Like their traditional retail competitors, they are banking on the fact that a swelling tide of teenagers will soon become a giant wave of college students in search of accouterments. That these students came of age in prosperous times, mimicking their baby boomer parents' accumulative ways, makes them even better pickings for savvy sellers.
"It's kind of consumerism gone crazy," said Joe Allen, USC's dean of admissions and a college admissions officer for 25 years. "We live in a culture right now where students are used to being surrounded by all kinds of consumer goods."
A spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation estimated that equipping the average first-year student costs about $3,550, including what she called today's standard items: refrigerator, TV, VCR, stereo and computer. That figure, which the NRF called "extremely conservative," includes clothing, linens and toiletries, but not books or other education-related costs.
That kind of dollar figure inspires increasing numbers of retailers to devote special sections of their stores and significant marketing muscle to the new kind of back-to-school selling bonanza known as "Back to College."
Many retailers angling for on-campus students advertise in college newspapers, distribute fliers in dorms and offer coupon books and credit card applications in student centers. Some have gone as far as offering free bus rides between stores and campus.
New Web player TheDormStore.com offers students free campus delivery on such items as futons, beanbag chairs and disco-ball beaded curtains.
"There are a lot of new products that appeal to students," said Graham P. Weihmiller, the Web company's 24-year-old chief executive.
At Target stores, the college outfitting sector has grown even faster than the stellar-growth chain's rate overall, tallying about a 20% improvement annually, said Ron Johnson, a Target vice president and general merchandise manager of home decor.
Dayton Hudson Corp.'s discount chain in July and August does blanket advertising hoping to capture students and their parents before school begins. That effort prompted the retailer last Sunday for the first time to devote the cover and first few pages of its newspaper ad insert to dorm decor.
Then, those Target stores nearest college campuses move into overdrive to recruit shoppers once they've arrived on campus and need more supplies--stocking scores of inflatable furniture packages, colorful extension cords, desk lamps and storage cubes.
"Many of these stores will do more volume in the days around orientation than they will at Christmas," Johnson said, with the Boulder, Colo., store as just one example. "It's beyond notebooks. It's about outfitting a room, and this is the part that's pretty new, being this aggressive at fresh, innovative merchandise for kids' rooms."
Wal-Mart focuses its attention on stores closest to campuses--but as the largest retailer in the U.S., that means specialized assortments at just fewer than 500 stores, a spokeswoman said. One hot seller this year, in addition to inflatable furniture: small microwaves in bright colors such as electric blue and hot pink.
The retailer says the total cost of what it defines as the "top 10 essentials for the ultimate decked-out dorm room" is under $350. The list includes a hand-held vacuum cleaner, dorm refrigerator, carpet remnants and cordless phone. But to add towels, clothes or what most people consider essentials will cost the student more.
The highly successful Bed, Bath & Beyond chain offers its own school supplies list of 93 items in addition to hanging signs above nearly every section pointing out college-appropriate paraphernalia. A special section in many stores also offers such student-only must-haves as study pillows and carrying pails for taking toiletries from room to shower.