Not so long ago, decorating a dorm room meant roughing it. Slap together a bookcase out of cinder blocks and plywood, tape a couple of posters to the wall, throw down an area rug and call it a day.
In need of an extra amenity? Try a beanbag chair.
These days, when it comes to dorm room decor, there aren't many college students really roughing it anymore.
Indeed, retailers have carved out a market devoted to converting drab dorm rooms into a home away from home. Big names such as Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, Wal-Mart and Kohl's have carved out significant brick-and-mortar and virtual shelf space for what's become a $5 billion a year business by some estimates.
Then there are niche Internet entrepreneurs such as Jeff Gawronski, who founded DormCo.com four years ago with a business model that takes a few pages from Amazon's playbook.
Gawronski's dorm supply superstore — and other web-only businesses such as the television rental firm CampusTVs — offer alternatives to descending on the college town retailers during those hot and steamy campus move-in days in August and September.
DormCo carries about 4,500 products, including more than 210 comforters, 100 lamps and other lights, 80 futons, loungers, benches and other seating, and customized products such as dorm room lofted beds. The choices include the practical and the quirky — think shower caddies and cardboard dorm room privacy dividers. The company also sells bundled items such as bedding, towels and accessories.
Gawronski's company is projecting sales this year to reach about $6 million, up from about $800,000 its first year of business.
Not bad for someone who got his start in dorm room supplies in 1999 as a sophomore at Xavier University in Cincinnati. That's when Gawronski designed and built out of wood a bedpost shelf for bunk beds to hold an alarm clock and other stuff. He made a couple dozen for the next year, and incoming freshmen snapped them up.
"I was just a guy with an idea," said Gawronski, now 34.
After college, however, Gawronski folded his shelving business and embarked on a successful career in pharmaceutical sales. But he never lost interest in dorm supplies, and in 2010 he relaunched his business as DormCo.
DormCo's product line has nearly doubled in four years. Lighting and security items, such as locks for computers, have grown more popular, while alarm clock sales have declined, which makes sense since smartphones offer the same feature.
Gawronski gains insights into product ideas from visits to college living quarters, suggestions from his staff and feedback from student customers.
In addition to all the stuff, DormCo offers shoppers additional perks, such as a $2.95 flat rate per shipping order. Products are shipped from DormCo's 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Buffalo, N.Y.
What Gawronski's business doesn't sell are computers, televisions and other major electronics. He leaves that market to others with more expertise and inventory, including recent startup CampusTVs, which rents 32-inch and 40-inch flat screens for the school year on many college campuses.
Though Gawronski said he has a "weird intuitiveness" about what could make for a hot product, he realizes there's a fine line between what college students consider necessities and what parents think are frills.
He advises students to create a shopping list, develop a budget, talk to roommates about splitting expenses and bring some old favorite items from home.
"Don't get overwhelmed and feel you need everything."
Steve Rosen is assistant business editor at The Kansas City Star. To reach him, call (816) 234-4879 or send email to srosenkcstar.com.