College family's first test: shopping

Parents, students fill their carts with more than basics

August 25, 2002|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,Sun Staff

On a recent evening at Towson Place, the stores were teeming with an unusually frantic group of shoppers: parents and their college-bound progeny.

Cramming their carts with merchandise, they cruised aisles filled with plastic, pastel-colored shower caddies, polka-dotted throw rugs and collap-sible shoe racks. They clung to coupons and scanned the shelves for bargains. When they found them, they piled their carts higher. And higher.

"This is a marathon," said Baltimore resident Beth Ahearn, peering over a cart filled with flower-print bedding for her 18-year-old daughter, Molly, soon to be a freshman at Georgetown University. "And we're not even close to being finished."

Gone are the days when college kids bought a few basics for their dorm rooms and packed them into duffel bags. Instead, contemporary college shopping has become an exhausting -- not to mention expensive -- undertaking.

"I don't even remember buying sheets when I went to school," said Ahearn, 48. "Things have definitely changed. I don't even want to know how much we'll spend today."

After stocking up on linens, storage containers and picture frames at Bed Bath & Beyond, the Ahearns went to Target. There, they packed two enormous carts full of snack food, toiletries and socks. During their spree, Ahearn found that her daughter's definition of "essential" often clashed with her own.

"I wanted her to get practical stuff like toothbrush covers and soap dishes," said Ahearn. "All she thought about was what would make her dorm room look cool, like picture frames."

The total cost of their spree? $643.

It might sound extravagant, but according to a survey by the International Mass Retail Association, shoppers of all ages are expected to spend an average of $483 on back-to-school this year, up 5.4 percent from last year. Of this group, kids ages 18 to 24 are spending the most: an average of $532.

For some college kids, this means slaving away at a summer job.

"It seems like every year I spend at least $600 on stuff for school," Dave Clarke, a junior at Villa Julie College, said as he lingered in the towel aisle at Target. Clarke took a job as a caterer at the Naval Academy to pay for his back-to-school spree.

What accounts for the cost? Surely not the basics like sheets, towels and toiletries.

Call it the cool factor. From glow-in-the-dark desk lamps to body pillows and MP3 players, college kids want their dorm rooms to be style-savvy. In short, they're favoring fashion over function.

"There's always been a need for kids to create a home away from home," said Aimee Sands, a spokeswoman for Target. "But with every year, they get more and more into fashion. College kids today want to create a unique, cool room."

And retailers, including Target, are capitalizing on the college crowd. This year, Target introduced an entire line of "Dorm Room" products by fashion designer Todd Oldham, a collection of accessories and decor. They are colorful, and undeniably clever. Keeping the small size of most dorm rooms in mind, Oldham's collection is compact. There's a "Bathroom in a Bag" for $9.99, which includes flip-flops, a wash cloth, a toothbrush cover and a nylon tote bag. Or there's a "Kitchen-in-a-Box." For $49.99, it contains 85 kitchen pieces like plates, can openers and cups. (Whatever happened to the cafeteria?)

It doesn't stop at Target. Bed Bath & Beyond puts more than 100 "must-haves" on its back-to-school shopping list including a shower radio, an inflatable bed and -- perhaps the most puzzling -- a paper shredder.

Because being cool also means being wired, electronic stores like Best Buy are getting in on the back-to-school bonanza. In its advertisements for college "needs," the store lists a portable MP3 player ($99), a digital camera ($219.99) and laptop speakers ($49.99).

Let's not forget the laptop itself. Although almost all of today's colleges provide computer and Internet access on campus, 75 percent of college kids consider laptops or desktops the most essential college supply, according to a recent survey by Best Buy.

Even Ikea, the cheap chic furniture chain, has its own list of back-to-school items including futons, butterfly chairs and standing mirrors.

All of which raises the question: How, when they're traveling to schools across the country, do college kids carry all their new belongings? The two-car caravan.

The Ahearns, who left last Saturday for Georgetown, packed the family's SUV and minivan for the trip.

While the list of college must-haves has gotten larger, dorm rooms haven't. The average dorm room measures 180 square feet, which means that with two desks, two beds and two bodies, there's not room for much more.

"When we talk with parents during our orientation, I ask them to try to convince their kids that all of their things should not come with them to school," said Jerry Dieringer, director of housing at Towson University. Still, he said: "Every year, I see people pulling up with a U-Haul, and I just wonder why. I know that they're bringing more than they need. They've got to leave space for all of their roommate's stuff."

Or their books.

Hopefully, somewhere in all their plastic, ergonomic, rainbow-colored, inflatable, stackable storage, they'll make room for some scholarly tomes.

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