It used to be all you needed for a dorm room was a pair of extra-long sheets and a couple of milk crates for storage. Today, students buy and bring all kinds of items to decorate and equip their dorm rooms — and retailers have rolled out the red carpet to cater to them.
Now, students and their parents can buy light-up wall art, personal-size blenders and chairs that come in 11 colors, including camouflage. There's even vibrating under-the-pillow alarm clocks that won't wake up roommates.
Driving the trend is practicality — students need a lot of stuff for their home away from home — but also a desire to be unique. No one wants a room that looks like everyone else's.
"The little-known darling of the back-to-school season really is the college crowd," says National Retail Federation spokeswoman Kathy Grannis. "Retailers, of course, recognize the importance of this crowd."
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Spending on back-to-college items is expected to reach $48.4 billion this year, far outweighing the amount spent on back-to-school shopping for the kindergarten through 12th-grade set, according to the NRF survey. Families will spend an average of $916 on their college students this fall.
Stores such as Kohl's, the JCPenney Home Store, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond have amped up their dorm offerings this year, creating splashy displays aimed toward college students.
Every kind of appliance imaginable is marketed to students. Mini refrigerators are everywhere, but there's a lot more too, says student Aubrie Layne, a 2012 Madera High School grad who attends California State University, Monterey Bay.
"Things are getting tinier," she says. "I have a mini Keurig (coffee maker) for my dorm, instead of a regular size one, which are huge."
There's mini crock pots and personal-sized blenders for protein shakes (no word on whether they're used to make margaritas, too).
Since dorm rooms are still small, anything storage-related is popular, says Target spokeswoman Jenna Reck.
"In a small space, everything has to have a place to belong and a reason for being there," she says.
Hence the invention of ottomans that double as storage. Kohl's also carries a wide array of storage items, including sweater shelves, shoe racks and jewelry organizers, all of which hang from hangers in a closet. It also sells bedside caddies that hang off the side of a mattress to hold books and other items.
And then there's the pouf. Every retailer has its own spin on the casual piece of furniture that is part ottoman, part beanbag. It doesn't have storage, but it does double duty as seating, a footrest and more, says JCPenney trend expert Shannon Mason.
"It's a phenomena," she jokes. "Students are always dropping by and visiting each other and … it's just a place to put your stuff, to drop your books."
Practicality aside, students are also driven to express their own personalities in how they decorate their rooms. Every major retailer is selling items in turquoise, hot pink and gray, which may be why some students seek out independent stores for a more unique look.
Casual Glitz, a Fresno-based online shop, sells candles, coasters and pillows that students like to match to their room decor, owner Larry Gonzales Jr. says.
"It's their way of branching out from their parents' house and developing a style of their own, whether it's a little hipster, or more contemporary."
Especially popular are the Fresno pillows that feature the "best little city in the U.S.A." sign on Van Ness Avenue south of downtown. Grandparents often send them to their grandkids living out of state, he says.
You can buy them online at www.etsy.com/shop/casualglitz and see other products on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Free Bird Company at 838 E. Olive Ave. also gets students looking for something different. Tapestries — whether Celtic, tie dye or in Rasta green and yellow — are big sellers because they can be used as bed covers, hung on the walls or thrown across furniture, owner Doug Whisenant says.
Students will also buy concert posters and record album covers to hang on the wall, he says.
It's all about their own personal style, says Grannis of NRF.
"Twenty-year-olds today, they're very fashion savvy," she says. "They care about what their dorm looks like. They don't see it as just as place to sleep and do homework."