Ron Heflin  /  AP
Allyson Ellis poses in a spandex chair and rests her feet on a fuzzy backrest in the campus shop at the JC Penney store in Lewisville, Texas, earlier this month. College students are preparing for dorm room decorating — a trend that has been a boon to home furnishings stores and big chains.
updated 8/9/2005 2:40:56 PM ET 2005-08-09T18:40:56

Denim fashions may be all the rage this fall, but Erica Green cares more about dressing up her dorm room than dressing up herself. Green, an incoming junior at Goucher College in Baltimore, Md., plans to spend more than $500 on furnishings, from bright blue butterfly chairs and rugs to a TV-DVD combo unit.

“I can envision the room. I have been thinking about it for days,” said the 19-year-old Columbia, Md., resident.

Plenty of college students are joining Green in the fun of dorm room decorating. The trend has been a boon to home furnishings stores and big chains such as Target Corp. and J.C. Penney Co. Inc., who are all expanding their dorm room decor beyond the basic lamps and boring white organizing bins.

Retailers are offering a brightly colored array of products and high-tech furnishings like ottomans that vibrate to music. Even dorm room basics have undergone makeovers — backrests and bean bag chairs now come in lime green faux fur and milk crates have been replaced by aqua blue mesh cubes.

Merchants are also coming out with services to help students and their parents spend their money more easily. This fall, Target will begin offering free roundtrip bus trips from at least seven university campuses around the country to nearby stores. Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc. and Linens ’n Things Inc. even feature dorm registries on their Web sites.

These merchants are all catering to a sophisticated generation, youngsters who grew up with high-tech gadgets and decorating shows, are used to having personalized items, and want to create a haven that shows their personality.

“They are used to having a lot of their own stuff, and they kind of expect to bring that personalization to college,” said Susan Schulz, editor-in-chief of teen magazine CosmoGIRL! College students have grown up customizing their cell phones and web pages and are used to having furniture collections designed for them, she said.

“These kids really have the tools to express themselves and create their own style,” said Schulz.

According to National Retail Federation, college students spent $2.6 billion in dorm room furnishings in 2004, not including $7.5 billion on consumer electronics like computers and TVs. Students spent on average $260.09 on dorm decor, and another $509.14 on consumer electronics, according to NRF.

“College students have money to spend, and stores are going all out. They have wandered into a gold mine,” said Ellen Tolley Davis, a spokeswoman at the NRF.

The biggest spenders tend to be freshman and juniors, many of whom move into single rooms or off-campus apartments. In fact, Green already spent about $300 during her freshman year, but now that she won’t have any roommates this year, she has more freedom to decorate. She plans to shop at stores like Target and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

Major Market Indices

Penney’s hot sellers so far include bright blue curved rockers in cotton fabric, hot pink paper lamps and boom cube ottomans, which feature built-in speakers that vibrate with sound, according to Debra Schweiss, trend director for Penney’s home division. At Target, popular items include what the store calls “chef-made dorm fridge packages” that combine a mini refrigerator, hot pot, iron, coffee maker and sandwich maker. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is doing well with such items as storage boxes in suede, pillows in faux poodle fur and microsuede comforters.

Still, while there’s a lot of excitement over decorating, students are stressing out over how to cram all their belongings into small rooms.

“We only have one desk, and everything I have has to fit into it,” said Peter Austin, 18, an incoming freshman at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J. He hopes to be able to fit his new laptop computer, printer, keyboard and lamp on the desktop.

Austin — who’s coming from West Deptford, N.J., several miles away — is also wondering where he’s going to put his TV, mini-fridge and stereo. Not to mention the DVD player he’s thinking about buying.

“They have more of a challenge because they have more stuff, and they want to bring it all, “ said Casey Priest, vice president of marketing at The Container Store.

The retailer offers “dorm room experts,” who give students storage tips over the phone and create a customized organization plan, then post a shopping list in a password-protected area of the store’s Web site.

Meanwhile, Best Buy Co. Inc. is pitching sleeker consumer electronics products that conserve space, like LCD monitors that double as a TV and computer monitor, or MP3 players along with stereo style speakers, according to Tracey Malone, a Best Buy store manager in Manhattan.

This fall, Best Buy will furnish model dorm rooms to showcase its products — featuring such technology as home theaters in a box, desktop computers with flat-screen monitors and MP3 players — at 10 college campuses throughout the country.

“A lot has changed since their parents came to college, but the dorm-room size is still the same,” said Kevin Cockett, a spokesman at Best Buy. “Students really appreciate what sleek technology can bring to their dorm rooms.”

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