[Pay] Back to School

By Andy Balaskovitz

Kaitlyn Summers and Jessica Cousins, Michigan State University freshmen from Macomb Township and Columbiaville, respectively, are roommates in Yakeley Hall. They didn’t know each other before this summer and spent a good deal of the past month on Facebook and texting, coordinating who was bringing what for the dorm room. They have accumulated a lot of “stuff” in that time and have some advice for future freshmen.

“Thank God we didn’t move in at the same time,” Summers said, who moved in a week before Cousins because of a job on campus. “And you don’t want a lot of storage bins on the floor.”

Combined, the two spent about $1,100 on move-in furnishings, which includes a $400 set of lofts, refrigerator, shelves and a futon.

They spent this at the “money savers,” which included Bed Bath and Beyond, Wal- Mart, Meijer and Target, Cousins said.

“We want our room to be the hot spot to hang out. We have a lot, but it still looks good. Just don’t open our closet,” she smiled.

I graduated from MSU about a year ago, and this scenario is hardly unique.

Why does the cost of furnishing a dorm room exceed the cost of new textbooks?

Why does back-to-school shopping season arouse retailers like the winter holiday season?

Why is there a campus-wide waste reduction initiative for move-in “day” (three days that ended yesterday) that is as involved as move-out day?

Living near MSU is a distinct experience this time of year. Roughly 15,000 students move into residence halls on campus, each with varying quantities of essential and non-essential furnishings. Perhaps — based on marketing techniques, trash collection data and the nature of moving into an eight-month home — the answer to those questions is “stuff” and the demand for it.

A rare opportunity

The MSU campus turns into a veritable city within roughly a week. There are six residential “neighborhoods” on 5,200 acres of MSU’s main campus. About 15,000 students and mentors — roughly a third of MSU’s student body — live in 25 residence halls, or dorms. Most of the students living in dorms are eight-month residents. One marketing expert says this creates a rare opportunity for retailers.

“You have highly motivated buyers coming into the marketplace on a strict time frame. It’s got sale written all over it,” Jeff Blohm, president of Blohm Creative Partners, an East Lansing-based marketing firm, said. “These opportunities are few and far between for retailers.”

Blohm added that retailers like Meijer, Wal-Mart, Target and Bed Bath and Beyond depend on back-to-school sales heavily and that August ranks up there with December in terms of business opportunities. He said the sudden influx of customers particularly in a college town is invaluable.

“Remember, places like Meijer are not just selling couches, they are building customers,” he said. “They work hard to make you a customer. Getting folks in there for four years is a big deal.”

Meijer officials agree that back-to-school shopping means big opportunity.

“Obviously, this is an important time of the year for retailers,” Meijer spokesman Frank Guglielmi said. “We have an advantage as a super center.”

Following Christmas and Easter in importance, Guglielmi said the back-to-school campaign starts shortly after July 4 and lasts through the first week of September. Changes over the past few years include a Price Drop program, which is a month-long agreement between suppliers and the store for “deep discounts on essential back-toschool items,” and cross promotions (think $10
spent on cereal gets you $2 off a pack of underwear). Meijer expanded
its electronics and furniture selections recently to target college
students, Guglielmi said.

are geared toward volume,” he said, meaning that Meijer keeps its
prices “as low as possible” and does not carry “extravagant” furniture
pieces. The Lake Lansing Road and Okemos stores offer huge
opportunities for reaching college students, he said.

With stuff comes trash

was the first official move-in day for MSU freshmen and the six
neighborhoods on campus were overflowing with spacious cars, SUVs,
trailers and plenty of sweating bodies (it hovered in the low 90s all
day). Equally noticeable were the MSU employees working near trash and
recycling dumpsters in each of the neighborhoods.

the end of the last school year, MSU waste services collected roughly
11 tons of clothing and shoes, 43 tons of loft lumber, 36 tons of
carpet, two tons of metal and eight tons of electronics, contributing
to 626 cubic yards of all recyclable material. That material was
recycled or donated to local charities, compared to the roughly 1,500
cubic yards of trash that went to the landfill. A weight measurement in
pounds from last year’s trash was not calculated.

Diane Barker, assistant director of Campus Living Services, oversees the recycling and trash collection initiative at MSU. When asked if she makes the connection between the amount of furnishings, electronics and
storage units at super centers and the amount of waste her department
manages at the end of the year, she said, “Most definitely. No question
about it.”

move-out time in the spring is naturally a big collection period, she
said that over the past few years, move-in time needed special
attention too.

“Students come with a lot of new things, especially freshmen,” she said. “With that is a fair amount of packaging.”

Strategies for collecting move-in materials have been in place for about six years and get stronger each year, she said.

Between Aug. 14 and Sept. 9 last year, the
university collected 1,785 cubic yards of corrugated cardboard and
boxboard and nearly three tons of carpet tubes and polystyrene (which
includes Styrofoam and plastic). The amount of corrugated cardboard and
boxboard collected nearly tripled from fall 2008 to fall 2009,
signaling a rise in recycling.

“Packaging is definitely a challenge,” Barker said.

has been at MSU for nearly 36 years, which includes her undergraduate
studies. “I moved in with two suitcases,” she recalls. “Earthly
possessions people have is just much more immense than when I was a
student. It’s a challenge.”

“Pack up, Pitch in, Help out.” initiative began in 1996 to decrease
trash and increase recycling on campus. The 2006- 2007 school year saw
a huge drop in trash (cut in half from roughly 3,000 cubic yards to
1,500 cubic yards), the same year MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon
launched the Boldness by Design campaign, a campus-wide effort to
heighten environmental awareness.

MSU Office of Campus Sustainability promotes and played a role in
designing these initiatives. Assistant director Jennifer Battle and
project coordinator Lauren Olson (the director position is vacant) run
the program from a small office in Olds Hall. Battle said students are
targeted at their Academic Orientation Program earlier in the summer
about MSU’s waste reduction commitment.

usually comes with stuff,” Battle said about the need for a move-in
recycling program. The Office of Campus Sustainability also heavily
promotes energy-saving electronics and conservation. “We don’t want to stifle students, but make them more responsible.”

The Office of Campus Sustainability issues its own move-in checklist, which looks
quite different from a super center’s. Twenty suggestions in five
categories include rechargeable batteries, reusable water bottles, a
drying rack for clothes and Energy Star appliances and electronics.
These checklists get distributed at AOP and during move-in. Meijer’s
“The College Checklist” is available at store entrances and lists 136
items in 11 categories.

the mother of a daughter just starting kindergarten, Battle is entering
the back-to-school-shopping world again (she was an undergraduate at
MSU from 1996 to 2000). “It’s easy to get wrapped up in starting
something new,” she said. “I think to myself, ‘Do I really need this?’
Am I asking that simple question?”

The ‘little guys’

super centers comes the inevitable battle between retailers who can
sell more things for less and specialty retailers who focus on one
market (for instance, beds or electronics).

the age-old battle of one entity taking from another. Sometimes the
little guys get squeezed out,” Blohm said. “It’s worth it to sell
things cheap now and it’s hard for the small stores to play that game.”

Pavick owns Pleats Interior Design in Old Town, specializing in
custom-made fabrics and furniture. He doesn’t bother with tapping into
the backto-school market or trying to sell custom items far below
suggested retail prices.

“I can’t compete down there,” he said. “We try not to duplicate things.”

pre-packaged and repetitive may not be Pavick’s forte, he understands
the desire to buy new home furnishings at low prices.

“As long as consumers understand they get what they pay for,” he said.

has been in the interior design business for 20 years and has been in
Old Town for the past 14. He decorates homes throughout the United
States, including some in California and Texas. As for the products
found in super centers compared to Pleats: “The difference is night and
day. A few bright colors, a few patterns,” he said referring to their
supplies. “Their audience is much broader, so they have to be.”

most back-to-school shoppers say they go to a major retailer for the
low prices, a closer look about town reveals hidden treasures at a
fraction of the cost: thrift stores. For some, the fractional cost of
buying secondhand and the experience of finding hidden treasures far
exceeds buying something new that someone else might already have.

Karim, a medical anthropology doctoral student at MSU, was perusing the
bric-a-brac shelves at Volunteers of America Sunday night, doing her
bi-weekly thrift store shopping. To Karim, “thrifting” is a combination
of miniscule prices and the adventure of finding unique items. She
bought file organizers at her last trip for 50 cents (which cost $6 at
an office supply store, she said) and earlier this summer found a
toaster and a coffee maker for about $5.

price difference is dramatic,” she said, adding that she buys most of
her clothes from thrift stores too. Karim believes thrift store
shopping isn’t as widespread among new college students because super
centers provide all the goods one “needs” in a single store. Together
with strong advertising, perhaps it is also comforting to have brand new things, too, she said.

“People like buying new things. Going back to school is a reason to buy that new stuff,” she said.

Unintended consequences

Not only has
this rare opportunity been good for the retail business, it also gives
the perception that late August is the time to buy. For retailers, it’s
worth it to sell things at a lower cost. For consumers on a budget,
it’s worth it to stock up.

Blohm has concerns
about this trend because of the pressure it puts on some families and
the “culture of spending pervasive in everything.”

“It’s building a case for what kids need and should have (for school) but it’s not necessarily what they have to have,” he said. “We live in a throwaway society. There has been a fundamental shift in the perceived value of goods we buy.

“Now it’s about what is good enough rather than what is good. That’s a scary thought,” he said.

attended MSU from 1978 to 1982, living a portion of that time in
Hubbard Hall, and remembers bringing less to college than what he sees
today. What furnishings he did bring were probably old and from his
parents’ basement, he said.

a daughter who is a high school senior, there is a very real
possibility that he will be the dad with the U-Haul trailer on campus
one year from now, he said.

of this furnishings talk reminds Blohm of the famous George Carlin
comedy skit on “stuff.” In it, Carlin laments the overwhelming quantity
of possessions we think we need, and that our homes are nothing but big
containers to hold all of it.

not so much that we have stuff, now we need things to put our stuff in,
or something like that,” Blohm tries to remember Carlin’s line. “It
reminds me of that.”