By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Those beer-crate nightstands and makeshift curtains are starting to disappear from U.S. colleges as retailers push more-upscale dorm furnishings for the back-to-school season.
Dozens of retailers, from Target Corp and Williams-Sonoma Inc's Pottery Barn to boutique website Dormify.com, are marketing aggressively to the college crowd this year.
Using oversized catalogs, social media and temporary stores set up near colleges, they are offering everything for the picture-perfect dorm room, including monogrammed towels, state-of-the art storage containers and color-coordinated curtains and pillows.
"There are fewer products purchased, but when shoppers do buy things, they want them to be a bit better in quality," says NPD home industry analyst Debra Mednick. As a result, retailers are emphasizing slightly pricier items, she adds.
Retailers need to be aggressive because competition is tough and families plan to spend less than last year on school supplies overall.
The National Retail Federation expects back-to-college spending to average $836.83, down from about $900 last year. But dorm rooms were a bright spot in the group's study earlier this summer: Almost half of families plan to spend $104.76 on them, up from $100.27 last year and $96.84 in 2011.
The NRF does not break shopping down by gender, but retailers say decorating is a girls' market, with mothers of boys often taking an interest.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Students are becoming fussier about their dorms, and affluent "helicopter" parents, who have spent years deeply involved in their children's lives, want to ensure that the rooms are comfortable, or at least do not resemble a scene from the cult college movie "Animal House."
"Before, the mindset was, ‘What's the bare minimum I need to get by?'" says Jeff Gawronski, founder of online dorm goods retailer Dormco.com. "Now it's, 'Do I want the 300- or 400-thread count cotton sheets? Do I want a nice extra-thick mattress pad?'"
Popular TV shows about home decorating, like "MTV Cribs" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," are motivating many students to design their own projects for dorms, Gawronski says.
Dormco has benefited from these trends. Gawronski says he expects sales of about $4 million in 2013, up from $800,000 in 2010.
And industry experts say dorm décor is becoming a new medium for self-expression as students flock to image-oriented social networking sites to show off their furnishings.
"For my generation, all parts of our life are online, so dorms are not only visible to our hall mates, but they're also on display to our greater social network," says Amanda Zuckerman, Dormify's 22-year-old co-founder.
The cornerstone of dorm retail is known as the "bed in a box," a package of twin sheets, comforters and pillowcases made to fit the long, narrow beds in U.S. dorms. Traditionally sold through mail-order catalogs, the sets were typically simple, inexpensive and not intended to last beyond college.
Today, similar products are available from designers like Lilly Pulitzer, whose twin-XL floral-print comforter covers retail at $128, and Jonathan Adler, who teamed up with J.C. Penney Co Inc to make bedding sets that sell for around $140.
Stores are making one-stop shopping easy by creating exhaustive dorm checklists and building separate college-focused websites to show off their products. Bed, Bath & Beyond Inc and other retailers also hold special sales for students in some locations, and Walmart says it sells university-branded products tailored to local stores near college campuses.
In mid-July, Target ran an online publicity stunt called Bullseye University, a pop-up dorm-in-a-box installation in Los Angeles with a live webcam that captured college-age YouTube celebrities living there 24 hours a day.
On a recent morning, remote viewers watched as Jenn Im, a college student who runs YouTube fashion channel Clothes Encounters, chatted with a friend in the makeshift room. Almost everything in it - curtains, baubles, a mirror, and chairs - was available on Target.com.
Dormify and Dormco also rely heavily on social media to reach shoppers during the critical summer months. Pinterest, for example, is wildly popular among college-aged girls and their mothers, prompting the retailers to make virtual "pinboards" to give visitors decorating ideas.
Even colleges are helping. Some, like the University of Washington, have Pinterest boards displaying furnishings in a typical room.
The University of Ohio has room dimensions and virtual tours on its website, said Housing Director Pete Trentacoste.
"We get a lot of questions about individual rooms from freshmen," he said. "There's a lot more festivity behind move-in day, and people are much more involved than they used to be."
(Reporting by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian; Additional reporting by Madeline Will; Editing by Jilian Mincer and Lisa Von Ahn)