The design consultant grilled Jennie Martin about her son's college dorm: "How big is the room?" Ten by 12, Martin said. "What will be in it?" Two beds, two dressers, two desks, came the reply. "What about the bathroom?" It's communal, Martin answered.
As the 15-minute telephone interview drew to a close, the consultant issued her recommendations: Martin should buy a refrigerator cart with a shelf to create more storage space, a mesh shower tote to carry toiletries, and a closet rod doubler to hang more clothes. "I thought that idea was pretty slick," said the 49-year-old, who lives in Genesee, Wis.
What did Martin pay for all this expert advice? Not a cent. The consultant on the other end of the line was one of 25 employees at the Container Store who resolve design emergencies for undergrads and their parents by phone and e-mail -- and who are turning back-to-college shopping into the next big marketing bonanza.
Forget Christmas. Retailers here and across the country are tripping over each other to charm the dormitory set. And it's not hard to see why. Back-to-college purchases are expected to surge 34 percent this year, to $34.4 billion, according to the National Retail Federation, a District-based trade group. That figure is more than twice as much as back-to-school spending of $13.4 billion for students in elementary, middle and high school combined, the group estimates.
As the back-to-school season becomes second in spending to only the winter holidays, retailers are fighting to reach every college student they can, rolling out elaborate Web sites with how-to design videos, decorating "model rooms" on college campuses, and creating dorm registries where students can design a room and encourage family and friends to pay for everything inside.
The elbows-out marketing campaigns reflect not only the enormous buying power of college students but the changing face of dormitory living. A new generation of undergrads, their tastes honed by a crush of interior design television shows, consider their rooms to be a central expression of themselves, and hand-me-down couches and lamps collecting dust in the basement no longer suffice.
At the same time, dorms are getting bigger and more sophisticated, as colleges try to mimic apartment living to lure the best students.
Coffin-sized bedrooms still exist, of course. But they are slowly giving way to roomier on-campus digs (such as the Potomac Heights apartments at George Mason University, with private bathrooms and spacious living rooms) and off-campus pads (take American University's luxury units in Bethesda, with concierge desk, full kitchens and soft carpets).
Frat house, beer-can-strewn rooms are out. Loft-like spaces with color-coordinated sheets, stools and martini glasses are in.
Danielle Blandin of Frederick, who will begin her freshman year at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., next week, says a dorm "brings out your personality" to new classmates who will be "in and out all the time checking the room out."
What she wants them to take away: "a preppy, surfer girl" decor.
Blandin, 18, and her roommate-to-be, Kirby Bradley of Delray Beach, Fla., have settled, by phone, on pink as a major theme. Bradley's refrigerator, hamper and bedding will contain the color, complemented by gold and black accessories.
Blandin's accents: lime and purple.
An area rug will tie it all together and "really open up the room," said Bradley, who is 20.
Just how important has dorm decor become? For Erin Frankrone, an incoming freshman at American University, enough that she'd rather cut corners on food than essentials such as the right pair of sheets.
"It's easier to eat cheap food and take food home from the dining hall," Frankrone said. "It's less easy to make a place feel like home. It's the little things that make it that way."
Little things, to be sure, that add up.
"A lot has changed from the days of cinderblock halls," said Bari Fagan, a spokeswoman for Bed, Bath & Beyond, which has created a dorm registry on its Web site and sponsors model dorms, decorated with products from the chain, at colleges such as George Mason University in Fairfax.
A lot has changed for retailers, too. Back to school used to be a catchall marketing message encompassing kindergartners with their crayon boxes and college freshmen with their laptops. And even when the big chains began tailoring their advertising to undergrads, it never amounted to the bombardment witnessed in the past year or so, executives said.
Now Bed, Bath & Beyond, Target, Wal-Mart and Linens 'N Things devote sizable sections of their Web sites, thick brochures and, in some cases, entire stores to college students. (That would be the Container Store, which closes its stores to everyone but college students one night a year. This year in the Washington area it was July 31.)
Ellen Tolley Davis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, said undergrads are the perfect consumer. "Many don't pay rent, insurance, or have a car or car payments," she said, so they can "put most of their summer job money and graduation money into a pool for back-to-college spending."
Future roommates Blandin and Bradley will spend up to $4,000 outfitting their dorm, Bradley estimates. Blandin is still hunting for a 20-inch, flat-screen television. Bradley, meanwhile, is splurging on small touches such as a framed Vogue magazine cover from the 1950s -- for $100.
Undergrads who live off campus without university-issue dressers and blinds often spend even more money than their on-campus peers. Georgetown University students Nicole Tingir and Celeste Tinari, who will live in a college-owned townhouse, were inside a Container Store in Northwest Washington yesterday loading up on shelving units, collapsible storage cubes, shower caddies and ice cube trays.
For retailers, back to college is more than a seasonal buying binge. Trends that sell to the collegiate crowd are typically winners with everybody else, too.
"Capture the college student, and you can capture a wider market at the same time," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm. "Selling to college students also extends to the moms and dads and of course the high schoolers that aspire to be like the college kids."
Witness the marketing blitz for what seems like a small niche.
This year, Target's undergrad-oriented "Room Solutions" guide, a glossy brochure filled with corduroy ottomans and gooseneck desk lamps, is 43 pages. A corresponding Web site features an online-only film about seven freshmen struggling to patch together a party during orientation week. The characters' rooms contain products from -- where else? -- Target, each helpfully annotated with a bull's-eye, should anyone want to buy them.
Best Buy, following the lead of several big-box peers, is introducing shuttles between its stores and 25 college campuses this year. During the ride, students will receive expert advice on how to digitize their dorms, plus a gift bag, the company said.
At WalMart.com, a company employee narrates "Dorm on a Dime," a short video tour of a dorm at the University of Arkansas decked out with Wal-Mart fashions. A "key gotta-have-it is texture" she says of a girl's room, pointing to a microsuede bed cover, fur-covered pillows and a shag rug.
Watching Wal-Mart executives encourage undergrads to "just chill" on a stool that doubles as a storage unit or bring "a little bling" into their rooms with a flutter lamp can feel a little strange. But the company hopes it will appeal to college-age students who are both Web-savvy and design-conscious.
At the Container Store, attracting the back-to-college shoppers often means attracting their parents with personalized service. The chain's dorm-consulting system, new this year, encourages shoppers to submit detailed design questions to the company online or by phone.
The inquiries range from the simple (I can't put holes in the wall; how do I hang stuff?) to the advanced (How do I turn the common room into a swanky hangout scene?).
To use the system, consumers fill out a basic survey online and can arrange to speak with a consultant by phone. Sessions can last up to 45 minutes. In some cases, a tailored dorm room design, created by the chain, is posted online -- all of which the company thinks increases the average back-to-college purchase.
The service exploits the growing desire to turn dorms into polished pads. In one recent inquiry, an undergrad fretted over where guests could put down their drinks in her room. "She was worried about what people would think of the room when they saw it," said Lori Laznovsky, one of the Container Store's design consultants.
That was not the chief concern for Martin, the Wisconsin mother helping her 18-year-old son, Nick, move into his dorm this week. "Typically, boys don't have many organizational skills going into college," she said.
Martin saw the service when using the Container Store's Web site to buy products for herself. After her chat with a consultant, she ordered $124 worth of products, including the mesh shower tote and closet rod doubler. "They brought up things I would never think of," she said.
The Container Store has room-by-room shopping checklists geared to college students. The store's design consultants are also available by phone.