When it comes to dorm shopping, the Class of 2015 is getting a crash course on savings before arriving on campus.
According to the National Retail Federation's 2011 back-to-college survey, a majority of shoppers say the economy will affect their spending plans.
"College students and their parents, who are likely also spending thousands of dollars on tuition, will be looking for ways to stretch their budgets and find good deals this year," says the federation's president and chief executive, Matthew Shay.
But turning a white-box dorm room into a trendy home away from home on a tight budget can be tough. Typical dorm rooms have two desks, two dressers, and at most schools, two extra-long twin beds, which require special-size linens.
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"Whether they're freshman or seniors, students want to customize their spaces and show their personalities," says Shawn McQuillan, assistant director of residential life at the University of Hartford. "Students use posters, bedding, area rugs and all the other furnishings to make it home."
Freshman and transfer students will begin moving in at the University of Kentucky on Friday. UK offers students, through Bedloft.com, the opportunity to rent a loft-type bed ($149 per academic year) — to provide more living space in dorm rooms — and micro-fridges ($195 an academic year) for their dorm rooms. Students who were savvy enough to order these items early could have them delivered to their rooms before moving in. This is the third year the university has used the service, and Debra Ross, the assistant director of auxiliary services at UK, says business has increased each year. Students also can buy a safe ($179) and a futon ($199) from Bedloft.com.
McQuillan says parents and students can save money by checking with colleges to learn what's allowed in the dorms and what's not, then dividing shopping lists among roommates. At Lexington's Transylvania University, for example, hot plates, toasters, toaster ovens, George Foreman grills, space heaters and electric kettles are some of the items not allowed. At UK, a similar list includes candles, electric skillets and deep-fryers.
"I hate to see people spending money on things they end up not being able to use," he says. "If students check with roommates, they can avoid duplicating things like televisions, rugs, chairs and microwaves."
His advice? Pack light for starters, and fill in after moving in.
Lani Murakami, divisional merchandise manager for O.co (formerly Overstock.com), says that's what parents are doing this year.
"More than ever before, we're seeing more consumers buying the basics and just a few accents or fun pieces," Murakami says.
New on some shopping lists? Bed lifts for more under-bed storage space, bed-bug mattress protectors and cushy fiber beds, in addition to egg-crate and memory-foam mattress toppers. (Those extra-long college mattresses can be lumpy.)
To meet the demand, back-to-college discount sales are under way at national and local retailers.
Bed, Bath & Beyond's "Furnish Your Pad" promotion features $15 combination desk lamp/ organizers, $25 lap desks, $60 dorm space-saver shelving units and $20 body pillows and back rests. Bed sets, with extra-long twin sheets, range from $70 to $150. An 11-piece dorm-room set with comforter, towels, sham, sheets, wall calendar, crate and laundry bag, available in four patterns, is $80.
TJ Maxx dresses up extra-long twin beds with Cynthia Rowley six-piece bedding sets for $49.99.
Target, a favorite with students, has extra-long twin sheets for $16, campy body pillows for $8 and heavy-duty surge protectors for $10 in its "Smart Campus Buys." At Target.com, shoppers can download college checklists and shop by color or price. The chain is offering free shipping on select merchandise orders of $50 or more.
Kohl's Student Lounge collection maximizes dorm storage with bedside caddies, collapsible storage bins, over-the-door accessories organizers, under-bed shoe organizers and sweater shelves, all priced at $25 or less.
O.co offers inexpensive bean bags chairs, bedding sets, desk lamps and other cool furnishings. Shipping, regardless of weight, size or number of items, is $2.95.
JC Penney, Sears and Wal-Mart offer free or low-cost site-to-store shipping. Online retailer DormBuys.com is offering a $2.94 shipping rate on all orders and a 10 percent discount for first-time customers.