By Randy Tucker
The Cincinnati Enquirer
As the college crowd returns to campus in the next several weeks, retailers in Greater Cincinnati and across the country are hawking supplies for a critical prerequisite course: Dorm Decorating 101.
Door beads, Jimmy Hendrix posters and milk crates for storage simply don't make the grade for style-conscious young adults, weaned on such television programs as MTV Cribs and MTV's Real World, which show their peers lounging in lavish accommodations.
New collegians are now filling their dorm rooms and apartments with computers, DVD players and other electronic gadgets as well as funky furniture and accessories, such as trendy clocks, lamps and bedding.
"A lot of the girls, and even more guys, are saying, 'If I'm going to live here (in a dorm) for a year, I'm going to make it cozy and more like home,' " said Treenah Moore, a 19-year-old sophomore who's a business marketing major at Thomas More College in Crestview, Ky.
Moore and her three roommates have transformed their Murphy Hall dorm into a veritable furniture showroom, featuring bookshelves, picture frames and a sofa-bed from Pier 1, floor lamps from Target, and embroidered towels for the bathroom from Wal-Mart.
As typical struggling college students, their choices in dorm decor were as much financial choices as they were style choices.
Cincinnati-based Kroger Co. is among those retailers that seem to understand the students' dilemma and have focused back-to-college marketing on reasonably priced home furnishings and accessories.
"We certainly cater to college students, especially at those stores that are located closely to college campuses, such as our Oxford store near Miami U. and our Corryville store (near the University of Cincinnati)," said Amy Shultan, a Kroger spokeswoman. "Small appliances, electronics, storage units, pre-assembled furniture and throw rugs are very large (sellers).''
Kroger is not alone in its effort to capitalize on the expanding market for home goods on college campuses.
Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, is pitching bedding, appliances, desks and bookcases, among other items, from the "Student Central" link on its Web site. It tells students: "Furnish your dorm or apartment with low prices."
Some retailers are even offering decorating tips to help sell to the college crowd.
Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse, known more for lumber and power tools than school supplies, has dedicated significant space in its circulars to back-to-school furnishings, supported by online decorating tips such as "Ten Ways to Make a Small Room Seem Larger."
The reasons for the growing focus on college students during the back-to-school selling season, which can extend through September, are underscored by the results of the National Retail Federation's first-ever report on the back-to-college market.
The retail trade group's 2003 Back-to-College Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, conducted by BIGresearch, found that the average consumer buying back-to-college merchandise would spend $665.86, pumping $25.8 billion into the economy.
By comparison, back-to-school spending by schoolchildren ages 6-17 will total $14.1 billion.
Simply put, college is where the big money is.
"For years, retailers have known how important the back-to-school season is for sales, but are just beginning to realize the impact of college spending," said Tracy Mullin, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation. "Students are heading to the stores looking for trendy, low-priced merchandise they can take with them to the dorms, and retailers are more than willing to fill their demands."
Traditional college students plan to spend the most returning to campus, with the average 18- to 24-year-old allotting $842.66 for everything from comforters to computers to coats.
Most college students will buy textbooks (75.8 percent) and school supplies (76.9 percent) this year, with more than half also purchasing clothing (57.2 percent) and shoes (52.6 percent).
Consumers also will buy electronics and computer-related accessories (37 percent) as well as dorm or apartment furnishings (22.6 percent).
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