Stuff 101

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By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006

It's about all the stuff kids take to college.

You wouldn't believe it.

D ell Inspiron laptop or MacBook. Bluetooth mouse. Printer/scanner/copier. Thirty-gigabyte iPod and speakers. Xbox for video games and DVDs. Joysticks. Plastic coat hangers . . .

Zach Boleyn, an Ellicott City 18-year-old, is heading soon to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in his Dodge Durango. He says:

"I guess I need a couple of swimsuits, I want to learn to surf. I play golf so I'm taking my golf bag, my irons and woods. I can't go without a hat, I've got five or six, my Titleist hat, a couple of Carolina hats, my Redskins hat and my Yankees hat and my sister gave me a Clemson hat so I guess I have to wear that when I visit her campus."

He takes a breath.

"I'm gonna bring PlayStation 2 to have the DVD player. How many DVDs? Oh God. I've got the first season of 'Entourage,' the movie 'Rounders.' 'American Beauty,' 'Fight Club' and 'Lord of the Rings,' all of them. 'The Wedding Crasher,' 'Old School,' 'Blow,' 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin.' "

One reason students like Boleyn take a lot of stuff is that they've already got a lot of stuff. According to generational consultants William Strauss and Neil Howe, $170 billion was spent on 12- to 19-year-olds in 2004, up from $153 billion five years earlier. Starting six years ago, retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Target and the Container Store woke up to college students as a separate target. Until then, they had pitched back-to-school advertising primarily at the K-12 crowd.

Each year, the National Retail Federation asks incoming college students how much they and their families plan to spend on college. Last year, students estimated they would spend $34.4 billion on college merchandise, up one-third from the year before. Freshmen planned on spending the most -- an average of almost $1,200 per student.

Virtually every major retailer now offers a special "back to college" page online with checklists of essentials (shower caddy) and decorating ideas (beachcomber theme, anyone?). The Bed Bath & Beyond Web site contains a college gift registry, designed like a wedding registry except that "wedding date" has been replaced by "move-in date." Now Aunt Clara can find out what Caitlin might like for her first year away from home besides the highly unsatisfactory response "just money."

Retailers' pitches are not subtle. Exhibit A: a 59-page brochure from Target that presumably was mailed to millions of homes. Titled "U.need.want.love.rock.," it offers, among approximately 600 other items, rubber cubes that fit over a bed's legs and raise the bed so a student can "store more."

Digital camera. Palm Pilot. BlackBerry. Metal racks to store DVDs and CDs. Storage bins to store everything else. Padded coat hangers .


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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