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Students want upscale dorm accommodations; retailers take note

An independent survey from consulting firm Deloitte estimates parents will spend $25.5 billion on back-to-college purchases in 2018. Above, a residential hall at the University of Central Florida. Renata Sago/Marketplace

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Parents lugged hand trucks across the University of Central Florida’s residential parking lot, braving the morning heat to get boxes of bedding into the nearby freshman dormitory.

For Gabrielle Staffiero and more than 4,000 other first-year students, move-in day marked the start of a new and scary chapter. It was the 18-year-old’s first time away from Westchester, New York. But her mother, Bell, made sure her daughter had everything to make her 170-square-foot dorm room feel like home.

“She practically brought her whole closet,” said Bell, reaching for a box to unpack.

Gabrielle had velvet hangers, space savers, an Ugg comforter, a Brita filter.

“And look at this thing,” said Bell, with laughter.

“That’s a husband pillow. It’s, like, comfortable for studying on your bed,” explained Gabrielle.

Gabrielle received a dorm checklist as soon as she got her room assignment from the university. Her mother shipped some items. Others they ordered online for in-store pickup. And while inside the store, they got sidetracked.

“Every time we were walking down the aisles —’Oh, I need this! Oh, I need this!’” Bell said. “I blew the budget. Definitely.”

Gabrielle’s mother said she spent more than $700 at Walmart, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond alone. That money is part of the $25.5 billion Deloitte estimates in an independent survey that parents will spend on dorm and school supplies in stores and online in 2018.

“They’re starting to realize how big the actual season is,” said Rod Sides, who heads the retail and distribution division for Deloitte.

Big-box retailers are strategically creating sections where parents and their kids can pick up a desk stapler, a shower caddy and a bed in a bagall in one swoop. Online retailers are offering bundles; in one click you can get any customized variety of bedding, desk and storage supplies.

“We’ve seen much more focus, especially for incoming freshman,” Sides said.

Sides said parents spend between $1,000 and $1,400 on average — mostly at brick-and-mortar retailers — out of convenience. He said it is because they can walk in and see what they are buying.

But Jeff Gawronski, CEO of online dorm supply company Dorm Co, said high demand for one-click shopping has opened the door to a handful of online dorm room outfitters like his.

“You can only fit so many comforters on a shelf within a store,” he said. “But we carry hundreds and hundreds of styles of different comforters.”  

One of the company’s most popular products is its 44-piece College Dorm Essentials Set, which comes with bed risers, custom bath towels and even a loofah. The company also partners with universities to deliver dorm and school supplies right to campus.

Gawronski said it is a different landscape from when he started the business in 2004.

“It was really more almost treating it like you’re going away to camp — ‘Oh, you’re going away for the semester. We’ll see you in the summer.’ And now it’s being treated as the teenager or young adult’s first home,” he said.

College costs more and students are traveling farther, so parents are more willing to make the investment in supplies.

Some companies have started to see this trend as an opportunity to expand their reach. Shanil Wazirali started Roomify in 2013 selling dorm supplies. Now the online retailer offers themed apartment decor. Customers can text orders and local service reps are college students. Wazirali said the idea is for customers to get used to the convenience “and feel like we’re that one service provider that they want to come back to.”

Besides, who says you don’t need bedding beyond graduation day?

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