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DORM DECOR DRIVES SALES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Towson University sophomore Pamela Geisel wants her dorm room to feel like home.

Like most college students, she jazzes it up with decorative lamps, rugs and lots of bright colors. And Geisel covers her walls with photographs and posters.

But comfort comes with a price: Geisel spent $400 on decor last year. And she is shopping now to spruce up her room when school starts next month.

"The best thing is to have a room that you feel comfortable in," said Geisel, 17.

College students are spending more on back-to-school bedspreads, trash cans, curtains and scores of other materials for dorms and apartment rooms. And companies are cashing in: From linens merchants to discount department stores, they're using catalogs, Web sites and other advertisements to promote trendy back-to-college merchandise with changing styles each year.

Experts say students' increasing disposable income and more parental support than ever before are helping to fuel a billion-dollar business that has mushroomed in recent years.

Spending on college dorm and apartment furnishings reached an estimated $3.6 billion last year, according to a 2005 survey from the National Retail Federation. That's a 38 percent increase from the year before, according to the Washington-based retail trade association.

"It's an explosive market," said Howard Davidowitz, chairman of Davidowitz & Associates Inc., a national retail consulting and investment banking firm headquartered in New York. "And this is a market that embraces change." Davidowitz said companies have become more aware of the college sector's spending power, adapting products to accommodate student preferences for variety, style, space economy and technology.

Companies such as IKEA, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and Wal-Mart are hawking more products this season targeting college students.

Target's Web site has a printable page of "Off to College" coupons, offering discounts on popular college items, such as coffee makers and compact refrigerators. The national retailer Linens N Things is advertising its twin XL sheets - bedding that's extra long and made specifically to fit standard dorm furnishings.

Bed Bath & Beyond has a section on its Web site dedicated to "Shop for College." The company also includes a checklist of essentials shoppers can print out and bring to the store with them. The list suggests everything from $160 Nautica comforters to a $60 George Foreman grill.

"The [back-to-college] season is a very important time for us," said Bari Fagin, a spokeswoman for Bed Bath & Beyond.

'A major trend'

Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, said the firm began studying back-to-college spending patterns in 2003 because "within the last five years, it's really become a major trend."

The association estimates that the average college freshman spent more than $1,100 last year on back-to-school merchandise, though that figure includes electronics, like computers and MP3 players, clothes, shoes and books. Technology has driven a lot of the spending - something most college students could never afford years ago.

Discretionary spending for college students reached $24 billion in 2004, according to a study from Harris Interactive, a market research and consulting firm headquartered in New York.

"Certain retailers have figured out the fact that this is a market with a lot of disposable cash," said Robert Flowers, associate dean of students for Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York. "They've made [products] more accessible to college students."

CasSandra Kirkland, a junior at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, said although her parents paid for most of her dorm shopping her freshman year, she uses her own money now. Kirkland, 20, said she works over the summer months as a paid intern at an accounting firm and has a scholarship from her church.

She typically buys new items each year to keep up with her room theme of pink wastebaskets, linens and decorative lamps. Kirkland said she looks for bargains at stores like Target and Wal-Mart.

'Just as good'

"The least-expensive stuff is just as good as the expensive stuff," said Kirkland, who expects to spend $100 this season on furnishings. She spent $250 her freshman year.

Krugman said parents are willing to help pay for their children's dorm shopping sprees to help ease the transition between high school and college. The difference between now and a decade ago is that students need more to make that transition smooth, Krugman said.

Elizabeth Symonds, 53, of Olney, said that although dorm shopping is much more expensive than when she went to college in the 1970s, she still helps her two college-age children with most of the costs to furnish their rooms. She acknowledged that advertising pressure has prompted children to ask for more.

"It's very clear the stores are doing very heavy marketing in those areas, and that did not exist in the '70s," Symonds said.

Higher tuition costs are stretching many family budgets and Symonds said that has pushed her and her children to shop around for dorm furnishings. Symonds said there's little parents can do about higher education costs, so savings must be found elsewhere.

"We can choose to buy the necessities, or parents and students can choose if they want to spend that money to be extravagant," said Symonds, who expects to spend about $200 on dorm supplies this year. "I think college students and parents have control over what that budget is."

Technology a factor

She added that technology is also a big factor driving this generation's spending.

"There weren't microwaves when I went to college," she said.

Experts say popular home improvement television shows like Extreme Home Makeover and Trading Spaces have also affected students' spending decisions. Krugman said those shows often give students decorating ideas that help them maximize their living spaces with fashionable room decor.

"It's all about home makeovers - more importantly, home makeovers on a budget," Krugman said.

Jeff Gawronski, a college dorm expert for Dormbuys.com, said that in recent years the company has seen its biggest increase in space savers and bedding. He said one item that gained popularity quickly is the Mini Mantle, a plastic shelf that holds to the frame of a bunked or lofted bed without damaging the post.

"That's the most challenging thing - condensing stuff," Gawronski said. "Students are always looking for stuff that will fit in their room but looks good, too."

That's the case with Geisel, the Towson University sophomore, who is looking online and in catalogs to spot the latest trend. "It's colorful, but at the same time it's very modern and edgy," she said.

Besides designer linens - particularly Ralph Lauren and Nautica - popular trends this year include curtains with temporary rods, bright colors and lots of pillows, said Glenda LeGendre, vice president of marketing and public relations for Villa Julie College.

Beth Rosko, associate dean and director of residence life at Villa Julie, said the school added on-campus housing two years ago to what traditionally had been a commuter school. Building on the recent trend of fancier dorms, some students enjoy single rooms, gypsum wallboard rather than cinder block walls and plusher carpeting.

Those kinds of changes at universities and colleges across the country also have helped to push the dorm decor market. Lavish apartment and suite-style residence halls provide students more room to work with when choosing furnishings.

'A positive thing'

"It's a positive thing," said Jomita Smith, a residence hall coordinator at Towson University. "I think it's showing us how creative they can be. It never ceases to amaze me, what they come up with."

Geisel said the investment, while sometimes expensive, is worthwhile. Students seek comfort and a way to let their personalities show through the way they decorate, she said.

"It may seem like a lot now, but if you buy things that will last, you're going to be here for four years, and it will be worthwhile."

tyeesha.dixon@baltsun.com

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