Custom art, air purifiers and TikTok: College-spending boom could boost retailers’ sales this fall

People walk on the campus of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on June 29, 2023 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Eros Hoagland | Getty Images

Over the past few years, Alicia Browne has noticed a change in what college students haul out of cars on move-in days at the University of Alabama.

Along with pillows, comforters and laptops, more students arrive with mini-fridges, headboards, Keurig coffee makers and even air purifiers. Some hire decorators who drop off linens, custom-made curtains and other furniture or decor orders on a specific vendor delivery day that the university created.

“It [dorm spending] has grown over the last decade, but since Covid, I think it has really exploded,” said Browne, the university’s director of housing administration for about 13 years.

The back-to-college spending bump could be one of the biggest sales opportunities for retailers this fall. College students and their families are expected to shell out a record amount this year: an average of about $1,367 per person, according to an annual survey conducted this summer by the National Retail Federation and market researcher Prosper Insights & Analytics. That figure has shot up by about 40% since 2019, according to the survey.

Browne credits the influence of TikTok videos and other social media posts that show off fancy dorms for some of the spending increase. In addition, parents do find themselves wanting to splurge on children who didn’t experience typical college socialization during the pandemic.

“There’s a definite sense from parents and families that their students missed out on things because of Covid, that there’s a need to perhaps help make up for missed experiences,” Browne said. “I do think part of that is trying to ensure their student is as comfortable as possible, as successful, that their start to school is going to be the best it possibly can be. And that involves their living situation and families are willing to pay for it.”

The back-to-college boom also creates a chance for retailers to attract and create ties to a new generation of younger shoppers.

“You’re establishing a relationship at a very important and vulnerable age,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail advisor for Circana, a market researcher formally known as IRI and The NPD Group. “A strong retailer will retain that relationship over time.”

This year that spending and those closer ties could especially help companies like Target, Walmart, Kohl’s and others that have said more frugal shoppers are buying fewer big-ticket or discretionary items like clothing, electronics and furniture. Those retailers will likely share some early insights about sales trends when they report earnings in the next couple of weeks.

Yet the back-to-college sales alone may not overcome retailers’ other challenges. Many companies, including Best Buy and Macy’s, expect sales to fall this fiscal year as higher priced groceries pressure wallets and consumers favor spending on experiences rather than store-based products.

Some forecasts for the new school year aren’t as rosy as the NRF estimates. Consulting firm Deloitte predicted back-to-school spending for kindergarten through high school students will drop 10% year over year to $597 per student, as consumers focus on buying necessities and choose retailers with lower prices or more deals. It did not forecast back-to-college spending, however.

Households aren’t just expecting to spend more because of inflation, according to the NRF’s back-to-college data. Survey respondents also said they expect to buy more new merchandise and big-ticket items like electronics and furniture than they did last year.

A growing pie — and market share up for grabs

As college spending is poised to grow, retailers have another reason to vie for students’ dollars. This fall marks the first back-to-school season since Bed Bath & Beyond filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its stores, leaving behind market share for others to grab.

Along with its 20%-off coupons, Bed Bath established a strong reputation for being a one-stop shop for college. It carried a lot of items that students needed, including “bed in a bag” sets that typically included a matching comforter, sheets, pillowcases and sometimes pillow shams. Bed Bath also allowed families to buy items at their local store and pick them up at a location near their campus in another state or city.

Bed Bath & Beyond logo is seen on the shop in Williston, Vermont on June 19, 2023.

Jakub Porzycki | Nurphoto | Getty Images

It is difficult to estimate Bed Bath’s total college market share. The company reported revenue of $1.44 billion in the quarter that ended last August. That included sales from other merchandise categories and its chains BuyBuy Baby and Harmon.

Those dollars may now go to retailers like Amazon, TJX-owned HomeGoods and Ikea.

Cristina Fernandez, a retail analyst for Telsey Advisory Group, said she expects Target to be one of the big winners of Bed Bath’s market share. She cited the retailer’s student-friendly items from decor to toiletries and food and its similar locations with plenty of stores near college campuses.

She said the NRF’s forecast seems high, but added families have been willing to splurge on students.

For example, she said, the pricey Pottery Barn Teen brand owned by Williams-Sonoma teamed up with LoveShackFancy, a New York City-based retailer known for frilly and floral designs that caters to shoppers at stores in the Hamptons and on Madison Avenue.

Other retailers have also gotten creative to woo college customers.

Williams-Sonoma’s namesake brand debuted a website landing page of kitchen items for students setting up their first apartment or a shared kitchen in a dorm.

Walmart and Target have featured a large mix of college-friendly items on their websites and social media pages, from fuzzy throw pillows to retro-inspired mini-fridges. Shipt, the Target-owned delivery service, and Walmart have both tried to attract more college students to their membership programs by offering a special discounted price.

Target has also worked with college-aged TikTok influencers on videos that show off dorm decor.

At The Container Store, shoppers will see some merchandise from Dormify, a direct-to-consumer retailer, at pop-up shops and online.

Dormify co-founder Amanda Zuckerman started the online retailer because of frustrations she had when shopping for her own dorm decor at Bed Bath & Beyond.

Now, Zuckerman said Dormify is trying to turn Bed Bath’s closure into a business advantage. She said its average order value has risen 15% year to date.

She said the company’s growth has been fueled by college students who want uniquely decorated rooms that reflect their personalities. They have sprung for items that weren’t on shopping lists years ago, including temporary wallpaper, neon signs and gadgets like matcha machines and makeup fridges.

Social media has amplified the trend. Now, people are showing off their dorm room to the world, not just to hall mates.

“The bar has been raised and I think that has a lot to do with TikTok,” she said. “That’s really all there is to it.”

‘A silent competition’

Kate Reppeto is going into her senior year at University of Mississippi. She said she tries to get creative and watch the budget while decorating, but has seen other students blow out the budget.

Callie Weathers

Kate Reppeto, an incoming senior at University of Mississippi, has gotten creative and stretched her dollars as she’s decorated her college housing. The 22-year-old moved in last weekend to the four-bedroom house that she will share with three friends near the school’s Oxford campus.

Repetto, who is returning to the house she lived in last year, said she’s reusing much of her furniture and decor. That includes a favorite item: a fluffy white bean bag that she got from a yard sale. She hung up a cow painting, which reminds her of growing up in Southlake, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth in Texas.

She said she plans to buy some new items, such as clothes from Lululemon and American Eagle-owned chain Aerie, along with makeup. She recently bought a blender from Target. Repetto said she’s trying to stick to spending no more than $400 .

Yet she said that’s below the amount that she’s seen other students spend. The first year of college she said she had to resist pressure to blow her budget.

“It was almost like a silent competition,” she said. “Who has the nicest looking dorm or the prettiest dorm.”

Dorm Decor helped decorate this room. The Birmingham, Ala.-based company can monogram items and even has an in-house artist that can match students’ decorations.

Anna Emblom

Those splurges have created a business for decorators like Dorm Decor, a Birmingham, Alabama-based company that acts as both dorm retailer and interior designer. It specializes in dorm-friendly headboards, bed skirts, storage ottomans and giant pillows called Dutch Euros.

Elizabeth Edwards, sales and marketing manager at Dorm Decor, said families tend to spend between $500 and $2,500 per child. She said the company offers lots of options and personal touches, including pillows that come in hot pink or tiger stripes, items that can be monogrammed and custom-made paintings by an in-house artist that can match students’ decorations.

She said parents across geographies and income levels turn to the company because they want to turn their child’s sterile rooms and “prison-type mattresses” into a feeling of home.

“It doesn’t matter their income,” she said. “They want their child to be comfortable like the next person.”