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Hit the books? No, the stores

Leaving for college with a typewriter, a blanket and a pillowcase to stuff the laundry in is history. Now it's all about shopping.

August 12, 2004|Robin Greene Hagey | Special to The Times

Was it only a generation ago that going off to college meant packing the family wagon with a small trunk filled with no-thread-count linens, hand-me-down towels and a blanket culled from Grandma's collection?

With the average student expected to spend $900 on back-to-school shopping this year, college kids aren't so much going off to school as they are gearing up to decorate. They're loading up the SUV with the "Top 50 Must Haves" from Target, including a $49.99 safari-style computer desk chair and a $75 beaded throw from Pier 1's new bohemian chic line, created this year with the "fashion-aware teen or college student in mind."

"Today's college consumer wants to have nice things, new things and a lot of things. It's the 'Trading Spaces' phenomenon," says Kristin Glass, a program developer for student services at Augustana College, a small liberal arts school in Rock Island, Ill., referring to the popular Learning Channel show in which rooms are quickly redone on a budget. "Students are getting the message that any space can be trendy, hip and personalized -- even a dorm room."

Marketed to since birth and influenced by TV's wave of reality decorating programs, today's college students are nothing short of a marketer's dream, experts say. They came of age during the pre-recession economic boom. Many are used to disposable income and have grown up with gadgets. Their world is wired and wireless, and they expect their dorm rooms to be the same.

A decade ago, the back-to-college market barely existed, according to a survey by the National Retail Foundation in Washington, D.C., yet last year college consumers spent $25.8 billion on such must-have items as the Perfect Curve Cap Rack System, a hat rack for baseball caps that sells for $19.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond, or the Cocomotion, a $24 device from Wal-Mart whose sole purpose is to make four cups of hot chocolate.

This means the average 18-to-24-year-old allotted almost $843 for "everything from comforters to computers to coats," and spending this year is expected to increase by about 7%, says Ellen Tolley, director of media relations for the foundation.

"Students have been going off to college for years, but retailers weren't paying attention to that market," she says. "That changed in the late 1990s."

The concept of college as a decorating -- and shopping -- opportunity is a bulletin to the baby boomer parents of teens who can't leave for school without a 42-pocket over-the-door closet storage system that goes for $29.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond.

"This isn't what we grew up with," says Allen D. Kanner, co-editor of "Psychology and Consumer Culture: The Struggle for a Good Life in a Materialistic World," published last year. "We were ignored. But today's children are used to being targeted. Anyplace that a youngster goes in public will have marketing. Marketers have become very good at getting around parents.

"As a parent, you have to pull your kids into a dark closet to protect them from marketing," says Kanner, a child and family psychologist in Berkeley. "And it has to be a dark closet so they won't see the labels on the clothes."

With college enrollment steadily increasing over the past decade and with more than 16 million students expected to take up higher education by 2005, according to estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington, D.C., it's no wonder retailers are targeting the college crowd.

"Retailers see parents walk into a store with their kids and they'll drop $200 or $300 in one shopping trip," says C. Britt Beemer, chairman and founder of America's Research Group, a consumer behavior research firm based in Charleston, S.C. "Except for Christmas, there aren't many times that people spend that much at one given moment. Everyone wants a piece of that pie."

Students paying careful attention to retail websites and TV and print advertising may feel as if they ought to earn college credit for wading through them. Pier 1's Design U gives an online lesson that outlines a five-point plan for a "rocking room redo." Target lists no fewer than "1,000 new back-to-college essentials" on its website and blankets TV with a high-energy commercial exhorting college students to "Do Your Room."

At Bed Bath & Beyond's website, future students can mark this major life step just as prospective parents or newlyweds long have, by registering for gifts. The "college registry" allows them to signal interest in one of 14 ways to decorate their dorm, including Pearl Glam (feminine purples) and Preppy Andover (black plaids and stripes). While perusing "Survival 101," students can also pick up college survival tips or read "Memoirs of a College Freshman."

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