At the Target in Baltimore's Mondawmin Mall, megaphone-shaped "college" signs hang over aisles stocked with must-haves for students living on their own, such as mini-refrigerators, desk lamps and six-packs of ramen noodles.
"Back to College" is a well-stocked department at Target and many other stores this time of year. It's no wonder.
The college market represents the biggest chunk of back-to-school shopping, which itself is the second-biggest season for retailers after the holiday season.
"College is a much bigger piece of the pie in terms of … school shoppers," said Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation. "A lot of what we believe has been driving the increase is the savvy millennial. When kids today head off to college, they want to arrive with furnishings for their dorm that are fashionable and attractive."
Emily Lubin, a Johns Hopkins University sophomore, strolled the aisles of Target on Wednesday, filling her cart with items she still needed after bringing a car-load of stuff from New Jersey. She piled in picture frames and a rug and other things to brighten her dorm room.
"It makes it more fun," said Lubin, 19, adding that practical items were on the list, too. "Anything where you can increase surface areas and anything to increase storage."
College students and their families will likely account for about two-thirds of the nearly $75 billion being spent on the start of school this year, the National Retail Federation said. That's because they have a longer and pricier list of supplies than younger students have.
And retailers are realizing how huge that young adult market has become.
"Instead of just speaking to the parent with the credit card … retailers are making a large effort to speak to college students," Grannis said.
Even in a recovering economy, the college segment is growing fast. Spending per family is expected to jump 10 percent this year to about $916 for dorm furniture, school supplies, electronics and more, the National Retail Federation said. Over the past five years, total consumer spending on back-to-college has jumped by about 60 percent.
The biggest share of expected college spending per family — $244 — will go toward electronics and computer-related equipment, followed by $139 for clothing, $104 for food, beverages and snacks, and $97 for dorm furnishings. Spending on laptops, computers, tablets and other electronics is expected to jump 20 percent, the federation said, the biggest year-over-year gain in that category since 2009, with 52 percent of college students buying electronics.
The retail group's back-to-school spending survey showed that college students will do most of their shopping at discounters such as Target and Wal-Mart, at department stores and online, and that the biggest percentage of them started their shopping three weeks to a month before the start of school. More than three-quarters said the economy will affect their shopping plans — about a third of respondents are shopping for sales more often, comparison shopping online and spending less overall.
"The 'varsity' class often gets overlooked each summer as back-to-school shoppers drive the news, but the truth is that today, college students and their parents contribute a significant amount to the economy," Matthew Shay, NRF president and CEO, said in a statement. Retailers are trying to connect with those shoppers through Instagram and others social channels, he said.
Retailers count on the back-to-school season because it's driven by needs as opposed to discretionary spending, said John Corrigan, vice president for the Mid-Atlantic region for JCPenney. School spending kicks off the fall and helps retailers gauge the coming holiday season, he said.
And the college set has become increasingly important, and not just for retailers in college towns as in years past, Corrigan said. JCPenney has set up special dorm shops in most stores this year to showcase college living, with items such as bedding sets with extra-long sheets, comforters, lamps, alarm clocks, pillows and towels.
"It's a growing segment of the business," Corrigan said. "We're really kind of building relationships with customers that are younger. It's huge as an event and huge as a relationship-builder over all."
Customer response this year has been strong, he said, with back to school contributing to the double-digit sales increases reported chainwide for the last week in July.
At Ikea in White Marsh, the back-to-school season is the busiest time of the year, said Bill MeiswinkeI, the store's public relations manager.
Students sometimes come by the busload to outfit dorm rooms or apartments — which can be the only option when campus housing is scarce. For Ikea, that means sales of desks, beds, tables, chairs and kitchen accessories along with the more typical bedding items. A week ago, a full bus of foreign transfer students attending University of Maryland, Baltimore County arrived to buy beds and dressers and loaded them all into a U-Haul, MeiswinkeI said.
On Thursday, Ally Dickstein, 18, of Columbia and Libby Greis, 19, of Crofton were shopping at the Swedish retailer to furnish an apartment they will share off-campus at Towson University. Dickstein, a pre-accounting sophomore, and Greis, a pre-mass communication sophomore, transferred from other colleges this semester and were too late to find housing on campus.
Fortunately, Dickstein said, their families donated a lot of what they need, but they still will each end up spending about $500 on furnishings and other supplies.
"We signed a lease on an apartment a month ago," she said. "We need chairs. We're looking for extra furniture that neither of us could bring."
Nearby, Nicole Cammarata, 22, of Pasadena was shopping with a friend for her dorm before she was to move Saturday for her sophomore year at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
"I came for a salad-spinner," said Cammarata, pulling it up from her cart, but she'd found other items along the way — towels, a shoe organizer, a bath mat, a tea infuser. "I'm trying to be frugal. This is the bare necessities."
She said she had been in touch with her new roommate, who is coming from Dubai, about what each could bring to the room. They plan to figure out the rest once they meet.
"We both seem laid-back," she said. "We can go shopping."