Back to a More Basic Dorm

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Among the many daunting challenges facing Shira Rosenthal as she enters her freshman year at the University of Maryland is this conundrum: Which trash can to buy?

There is one from Pottery Barn spinoff PBteen that costs $29 and is painted in pastel colors and emblazoned with catchy eco-slogans like "Think Green." Then there is the plain white wastebasket from Target for just $4 -- less than the cost of a gallon of gas. Rosenthal went with the latter.

"I went with less expensive products that might not be as 'attractive,' if you know what I mean, but that work perfectly fine," the 18-year-old from Brookeville said. "I felt that things like this weren't worth spending so much money on."

It's a small sacrifice but yet another example of how the weak economy is cramping our national style. In recent years, students stocked up on bold bedspreads, matching clothes hangers and iPod sound systems to outfit dorm rooms that increasingly resembled urban lofts, driving double-digit increases in sales in the emerging back-to-college market.

But those gains are expected to grind to a halt this season, with the National Retail Federation, a trade group, predicting sales dropping 1.4 percent to $31 billion as high gas prices and the tumultuous housing market force students and their parents to rein in spending. Economics 101: Cute comes second to cheap.

"College students are learning a hard lesson that when economic times are tough," NRF President Tracy Mullin said, "fun purchases take a back seat."

The NRF expects overall back-to-school spending -- including students from kindergarten to high school -- to bump up 2.5 percent to $51 billion, driven by electronics and the federal stimulus checks sent this spring and summer. The season makes up about 2 percent of total annual retail purchases.

But spending on college merchandise is estimated to average $599.38 per person, compared with $641.56 last year, according to the NRF. It predicts cutbacks in dorm furnishings, where the average spending is down nearly $19 to $90.90, and apparel, down more than $15 to $134.40. Electronics are expected to take the biggest hit, down more than $46 to $211.89.

Marshal Cohen, an analyst for consumer behavior research firm NPD Group, anticipates students will shift to discount stores for their back-to-college shopping. Many still want a little flair in their purchases but are unwilling to pay much more for it, he said. He predicted apparel would be the hardest-hit category, followed by furnishings.

"I don't think it's going to be about pimping up your room," Cohen said. "I think it's about making sure the basic essentials are up to speed."

Eighteen-year-old Jeff Blazer of Montgomery Village is planning a bare-bones dorm room for his freshman year at U-Md. He is still waiting to find out who his roommate will be and hasn't bought anything yet, not that he expects to need much beyond toothpaste.

"It'll just have the basic look," he said. "A bed, a desk, a chair. Actually, a poster -- no, I don't think I'll have a poster."

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