Marketers, stores target college students with dorm-room essentials

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Before Amanda Barnett left home for her freshman year at San Jose State University, hardly a week passed by that she didn’t receive a bundle of ads or e-mails hawking cool stuff to buy for school.

She used the information like a general plotting a campaign. She scoured the Internet for decorating ideas and hunted for bargains to transform her 12-by-15-foot dorm room from dreary box to striking personal statement.

Add in a laptop, an MP3 player, cell phone, posters and dozens of photographs, and you’ve got some of the bare “essentials” that today’s design-conscious college students are packing into their dorm rooms.

“Our generation has always gotten a lot of advertising for toys and stuff; we grew up with it and now we’ve moved to college,” said Tera Nakata, a junior at the University of California-Berkeley.

The array of stylish merchandise at discount prices “is making it more normal to get things for college,” Nakata said. “You think, ‘This isn’t so expensive, so I’ll go out and get it instead of bringing it from home.’ “

That’s exactly what retailers are counting on. Marketers are increasingly targeting this historically neglected group in print ads and catalogs, on television and radio, and via the mailbox and Internet. This summer Target pursued the college market with its “Do Your Room” campaign. Linens ‘n Things touted “Destination Dorm.” Bed Bath ‘ Beyond promoted an online “college registry.”

All are scrambling for a piece of the $25.7 billion that students and their families are expected to spend on back-to-college merchandise this year, nearly twice the amount expected for elementary and high school students, according to a National Retail Federation survey.

Students are bringing more personal belongings to college than they did a decade ago, said Imogen Hinds, manager of undergraduate housing at Stanford University.

They equip their dorm rooms with microwave ovens, mini-fridges, micro-fridges, televisions and computers — enough electrical devices to cause worries about power problems in older halls.

Many have a budding sense of personal style, honed by TV design shows such as “MTV Cribs” and “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

At Stanford, for example, more students are bringing their own futons and seating, such as colorful bean bag or inflatable chairs.

“We do have students completely disassemble their beds, put them on the side of the room and sleep on a futon or the floor,” Hinds said. “They like a lot of design options to move things around. And students like to bring in personal color.”

Thinking about how to decorate has been an exciting part of going away to college for Kirnan Klein, who heads to UC-Santa Barbara in about two weeks.

“I feel like I can control it all,” Klein said. Unlike her room at home, which has stayed much the same over the years, at college, “I can decorate it however I want.”

While Klein has been scouting decorating ideas for the past year, her boyfriend, Dan Feldman, said he hasn’t put much thought into his freshman dorm room at the University of Oregon. He was more concerned about electronic essentials.

“These are really tiny rooms — like a hotel room and there are two people in it,” Feldman said. “The stuff they sell a lot of times is handy, but a lot of times it’s excessive. You really have to control your imagination and look at reality and say, ‘I really don’t have room.'”