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Originally published Thursday, August 30, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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Dorm décor: Leaving home, but none of its comforts

Flat-screen TVs, matching linens — nothing is too luxurious for today's college dorm room.

The New York Times

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College kids shouldn't have all of this stuff. They need to learn what it means to do... MORE

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I don't remember everything I took with me when I went to college, but do I know it all fit easily into the back seat of our family car. The twin-size sheets were new; nearly everything else (pillow, stereo, ugly green rug) had been scavenged from home or a thrift store.

As for electronics, that summer my well-meaning parents went to a garage sale and were talked into buying an Apple Macintosh with a drive that accepted only large floppy disks. My suspicion that it was embarrassingly out of date, even by 1994 standards, was confirmed by my roommate's look of disbelief when I tried to boot up.

Altogether, furnishing my dorm room cost maybe $50.

These memories came back as I stood inside a Target store in South Philadelphia one night last week at midnight, watching 1,200 students from Temple University swarming the aisles like amped-up contestants on a shopping-spree game show.

Target had bused the students from campus and rearranged the store for the after-hours event. A DJ played dance music in what was normally the baby department; mini-fridges and cases of Red Bull were stacked along a central corridor. Students' carts were filling with hanging mirrors, garbage cans in bright colors, shower caddies and bed-in-a-bag sheet sets.

Gina D'Annunzio, director of student activities at Temple, said she had resisted Target's previous overtures to host an after-hours event. But this year the timing had worked out, and D'Annunzio remembered that as a little girl she had dreamed of getting "locked in a mall" — a common fantasy, judging by the scene at Target.

Jordyn Richman, an 18-year-old freshman, had come for a mattress pad, a body pillow, a night light and push pins. Before arriving at Temple, Richman had already spent $300 on dorm décor at Target and Ikea stores near her home in Boca Raton, Fla. The additional items she was buying would "round out" her room, she said.

In recent years, the Target run — or a shopping trip to a similar big-box store — has become a new college tradition, right up there with spring break and sleeping through class. This time of year it is common to see students and parents roaming the aisles, checking off items from an ever-growing list of essentials. The goal, it seems, is to turn the dorm room into a plush home away from home.

Derek Jackson, director of housing and dining services at Kansas State, is among those who have observed a growing influx of comforts like coffee makers and the rise of color-coordinated rooms.

"We get requests saying, 'Can you give us dimensions for the windows, because we want to hang curtains?' " he said. "Back in the old days, students were just trying to make their rooms purposeful."

And of the 72-inch televisions he has lately been seeing students lug into residence halls, Jackson said, "If they can fit it into their room: That's the mindset."

Norb Dunkel, associate vice president for student affairs at the University of Florida, who is busy overseeing the current crop of arrivals, has also noticed the maximalist shift. He cited the overloaded family car as a ubiquitous image during move-in week.

"When they back their vehicle up, if it goes beep-beep-beep, they're bringing too much stuff," Dunkel said. "And you can hear the beep-beep-beeps now."

Both men say big-box retailers have played a big role in fueling students' desire to make their dorm rooms more than just drab boxes along a double-loaded corridor. Retailers are now marketing so heavily to students during the back-to-college season, Dunkel said, that they would probably like to "put a flier in every student's room."

Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, an industry group, said hard goods for back-to-college, which includes school supplies, laptop computers and dorm décor, are a $50 billion annual business. Which is why retailers as diverse as Apple, Kate Spade, Krups, Roux Maison detergents and Sure Fit slipcovers are all promoting deals.

Despite the recession, Grannis expects to see growth in this sector, because in an annual survey conducted by her organization, she said, this year more people responded that their children will live in dorms on campus, rather than commuting from home to save money as they have in previous years.

Surely there are students whose families can't afford to spend hundreds of dollars outfitting a dorm room. But "the kid with two suitcases flies under the radar," said Patrick Love, associate vice president for student affairs at Rutgers, which also holds an after-hours sale with Target. "What draws your eye are the students bringing the flat-screen TVs."

Not surprisingly, Target is a leader in the market. Its after-hours sales for Temple and Rutgers students are just two of 69 similar events the retailer is holding in partnership with colleges across the country, an effort that began 11 years ago with the University of Minnesota.

This year, Target also introduced uStyler (http://college.target.com/ustyler), an online program that allows students to see how its products look in a virtual dorm room. After talking with students about their cooking habits, the retailer created a line of back-to-college dinner and drinkware in colorful patterns, made of microwaveable polypropylene.

"The students also told us they eat on the go," said Michelle Mesenburg, the company's vice president for style marketing. "So we added a little rim to prevent food from spilling."

Mesenburg said the company begins debriefing sessions to plan its annual back-to-school strategy as early as September of the previous year.

Bed Bath & Beyond also markets heavily to college students, offering programs like a college registry and Shop Here, Pick Up There, which allows students to buy items locally or online and retrieve them at a store near their college. The retailer's Campus & Beyond Checklist, a sacred text among students and parents, numbers over 90 items: from basics like hangers and laundry hampers to things of more questionable necessity (particularly during a recession), like a tool kit, blackout panels and iPod speakers.

"The business just continues to grow," Grannis said. "There's so many different ways to get in on this."

Despite my short campus checklist, I wasn't averse to decorating my dorm room. My mother is an antiques dealer, and I remember the kitschy red-tin Chesterfield cigarettes sign I found among her stuff and hung on the wall in my dorm. The ugly green rug really tied the room together.

Still, it wouldn't have occurred to me to buy curtains or an air-conditioner or a coffee maker. I wasn't planning to spend much time in my room, and I was living on a student's budget, as they say.

Or used to say. Watching the shopping frenzy at Target in Philadelphia, I wondered if the phrase still applied. When I asked one girl pushing a loaded cart if her parents had set a spending limit for her, she looked at me blankly.

What has changed since I graduated not all that long ago?

Chris Seman, president of Caring Transitions, a Cincinnati-based company that handles logistics when people make a big life change, said the closer ties between children and parents have redefined the move to college. Students are "so connected to their family and home they don't see moving to college as a new stage," he said. "They want to bring home with them."

At the same time, he added, helicopter parenting doesn't stop when the child goes off to school: "Now parents think their kids have to have everything they had at home or it's going to be too traumatic for them."

Jess Smith, an 18-year-old freshman at Temple who came to the Target event to buy a mirror, said her parents "took over decorating" the lounge-style room she is sharing with two roommates. "They were a huge help," Smith said. "My dad came today and installed a shower caddy."

Seman, who attended Eastern Michigan University in the mid-1980s, said he recalls taking little more than clothes and a Led Zeppelin poster. But when he sent his oldest son off to college two years ago, he admitted to overdoing it at Target, where he spent $350.

"I probably ended up returning $100 worth of stuff," Seman said. "He had roommates. It was duplicates of everything. How many spatulas do you need?"

If the volume of moving boxes has increased, however, so has students' desire to live in a well-designed space. Reality shows focused on design and websites like Pinterest have made students savvier about decorating.

Roommates connect on Facebook months before college begins, Jackson said, to plan their décor: "They pick out carpet and start accessorizing. The bedspreads match. It's a more coordinated effort."

At the University of Florida, there is even an annual competition for the best decorated room. The winner two years ago, Kent Stephan, used shells and weathered furniture to create a nautical effect.

"I've stayed at a lot of hotels, and my inspiration came from having that chic, luxury feel," said Stephan, who graduated last year and is considering starting a design business geared to students. "I wanted to break from that dorm-room look."

Indeed, for a number of students, the bed-in-a-bag just doesn't cut it.

Last year, Sarah Calle, a 21-year-old junior at Laguna College of Art and Design in Laguna Beach, Calif., started Dormdesign.tumblr.com, a blog that showcases tricked-out dorm rooms. "I wanted to see people who took it beyond the basics," Calle said. "Some inspirational design."

Amanda Zuckerman went one step further. Before she went off to Washington University in St. Louis as a freshman three years ago, she went shopping for dorm furnishings and found the offerings at big-box stores "very childish," she said. "No one had Twin XL bedding that was very stylish," she said, referring to the irregular bed size native to residence halls.

So Zuckerman and her mother, Karen, an advertising executive, started Dormify.com, an e-commerce site that sells stylish (and generally more expensive) bedding sets, wall decals and sorority-themed items like posters and Greek prints.

"If you care about what you're wearing, you'll care about what your room is like," Zuckerman said. "It's a form of self-expression."

Her freshman dorm room had a cream-and-green color scheme with "pops of orange," she said, and a chandelier wall decal. It was known among her friends as the "hotel suite."

As I was leaving the Target event, I ran into a 19-year-old Temple student with frosted hair named Alec Santiago Hooper. His cart was loaded with a Mr. Coffee machine, a 10-speed blender, pillows and burgundy curtains, among other items.

Like many students I spoke to, he had already done most of his shopping, buying bedding at Ikea and a used dresser on Craigslist, and was picking up extras for his off-campus apartment.

"I didn't know my room was so plain," he said. "So I got the curtains."

His purchases also included a ClosetMaid combination bench-and-storage unit, which he planned to customize by swapping out the plain beige drawers and substituting some wicker baskets he found a few aisles over. This would enhance what he described as the "international" look of his room (he travels a lot, he explained).

Hooper held up the baskets, pleased with his find, then his eyes narrowed on a small discrepancy: One basket was slightly darker than the other.

"I'm about to go get a new one," he said, excusing himself. "These baskets are not the same."


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