Nonfoods Talk: College days

Bed, Bath & Beyond has developed a solid reputation with consumers as the go-to-place for college dorm needs. Targeting college students and their free-spending ways is a no-lose proposition.

Seth MendelsonMany years ago—more than I really want to think about—I went to college with not much more than a suitcase full of clothes, a cheap stereo and, for obvious reasons as a journalism major, a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. I loved that typewriter.

In August, my oldest son left for his first year at college, off to his dad’s alma mater, Syracuse University. Things have changed quite a bit since I left for school. He basically took an entire apartment full of merchandise with him, very little that has to do with getting through the educational process of college and a lot to do with having a great time on his old man’s dime over the next four years.

What intrigues me is the intense competition among retailers for his attention. While there is some evidence that overall back-to-school market sales have slowed, it is very clear that there is no slowdown amongst the merchandise needed to make sure today’s college students have all they need to weather the college experience.

For reasons I cannot figure out—though I participated in it myself—parents seem to have little regard for their own finances when it comes to their children’s higher education. We spare no expense making sure that our kids have all they need—and much more. In fact, I dare say that products geared for college-aged kids have joined with the baby care and pet categories as markets where consumers will rarely look at the price of the product and simply look to get the items they need as easily as possible.

No company pays more attention to their needs, and parents’ wallets, than Bed, Bath & Beyond. It is marketing at its best.

BB&B, under the moniker Campus & Beyond, apparently has developed ties with a wide array of colleges to be a semi-official provider of such essentials as bed sheets, bulletin boards, hair dryers, fans and even stereo equipment. Syracuse, through its housing department, sent us a full list of recommended products we should consider bringing up.

Interestingly, virtually every product on the list is sold at the local BB&B. This marketing approach had the company’s stores packed throughout August with parents and students looking for all those products needed to make sure the kids are ahead of the curve when it comes to the latest dorm room styles.

With most consumers entering the store with BB&B’s well-distributed 20%-off coupon, the retailer also offers consumers the opportunity to order products through a local store and pick them up at a store near the school their children are attending. That saves consumers the headache of transporting all those electric toothbrushes, pillows and lamps, among many other things, those many miles to school. Of course, one should see the lines at the college-area BB&B stores as the students and their parents come to pick up their merchandise, seemingly all at once.

At Syracuse, BB&B also offers a “pop-up” store that allows students to pick up products at the school’s bookstore for a period of time early in the semester. All of this adds up to some great incremental business for BB&B with a segment of the population that has money and wants to spend it. BB&B’s marketing department deserves tremendous kudos for the job they have done. When consumers talk about a Bed Bath shop, they all know what that means: a trip to the nearest BB&B store to pick up a few hundred dollars worth of product for their kids’ needs.

It is quickly becoming part of the college experience and, for this one retailer at least, that is nothing but great news. 

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