How decorating dorm rooms became a $6.8 billion industry


The “it” bag among a subset of shoppers-in-the-know is adorned with tacky logos, contains a garish combination of two primary colors, and has a kind of glitchy zipper. Despite all this, it is sometimes unavailable due to high demand. You can often find it marked up by 300 percent on third-party marketplace sites.

Gucci? Coach? Nope, it’s the Frakta bag, courtesy of Swedish designer … Ikea. I just bought six of them direct from the retailer, at $4.99 each.

The Frakta bags are made out of the same blue plasticky material as Ikea’s large open shopping bags, except they’re shaped like duffel bags and have a zipper and extra straps that can function as a backpack. I know about them from a Facebook page called Dorm Chatter, a 35,000-follower-strong bastion of mostly moms who debate the best fans, sheets, and, yes, storage bags, for moving their students to college.

In the early ’90s, I attended a state university with standard cinderblock dorm rooms. I decorated it with posters, milk crates, and a brown, beat-up, rented mini-fridge. So I was not fully prepared for what these amateur dorm experts were telling me my kid, who will be a freshman this fall attending college six hours away, “needed” for his room.

First and foremost, the Frakta bags. Group members posted tons of pictures showing how much stuff could fit in one and their superior stackability in the back of SUVs. Plus, they can have a second life as travel bags or as laundry bags. I was convinced.

But then it started to get more esoteric. There’s the Woozoo, a globular, oscillating fan that also moves up and down for superior cooling, which regularly sells out at Costco. There’s the Lucid mattress topper (oh, shit, he needs a mattress topper?), for which it had been determined that the 3-inch thickness was ideal. There are multiple pool noodle hacks — a shockingly popular DIY tool — including one in which you slice the noodle in half lengthwise and put it on the bottom edge of a lofted bed so taller kids don’t hit their heads on the frame.

There were questions about temporary wallpaper and bedskirts and even the feasibility of portable in-room washing machines. I quickly panicked, overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff. I had to shut my laptop and calm myself down before I mindlessly spent hundreds of dollars on over-the-fridge storage shelves and dozens of Command hooks.

The dorm shopping economy is a robust one, with plenty of places to buy things that you see on Instagram or TikTok or Facebook groups. In addition to Amazon, the traditional dorm retailers like Target and Bed Bath & Beyond offer dorm registries, complete with discounts. Then there are specialty retailers like OCM, DormCo, and Dormify that offer dorm-specific storage options and decor. They even sell full packages that allow students and families to buy everything all at once, like OCM’s 27-piece, $250 package that includes everything from sheets and towels to a laundry bag and surge protector.

Dormify, which has the trendiest products of the bunch and even offers design services, just landed a Series B round of private equity funding this spring and counts American Eagle Outfitters as a strategic investor. Social media has changed the game on dorm shopping, but also, students look to express their personalities via decor and parents see one last opportunity to take care of their children at the end of their childhoods.

Aaryn Peterson, a parent in Portland, Oregon, estimates she spent close to $3,000 buying stuff for her freshman daughter Grace last year. She posted a picture on the Dorm Chatter page of her in a UHaul on the last day of school surrounded by boxes, with an impassioned plea that read, in part: “Don’t be me. Learn from my mistakes.” She got almost 500 responses in return, including some sweary and defensive DMs. She says she was just trying to provide some hindsight wisdom for all of us newbies.

“[Grace] didn’t want 7,000 throw pillows. She didn’t want them, but I kept buying cute ones,” says Peterson. “And it was because I just kept thinking, ‘She needs this to be comfortable. She needs this to feel all the things.’”

I empathize with the pull of that inclination as I debate whether or not my kid needs a special bed caddy for his electronics.

According to a July report from the consulting firm Deloitte, which publishes annual college shopping surveys, $26.7 billion will be spent on back-to-college items, an average of about $1,459 per student. Computers and gadgets make up a big chunk of this, but dorm appliances/furniture will account for $6.8 billion of the total.

“It’s really expensive to outfit a complete dorm. It can be thousands without really even going over the top,” says Fran Bardio, the founder of the Dorm Chatter page. The group’s first iteration was for discussing college admissions, a process she found stressful and confusing. Other parents did, too, but the conversation soon transitioned to dorms, so she started Dorm Chatter separately three years ago when her first child was heading off to school. (She says she gets about 60 comments a day on the page and currently there is a queue of 1,000 people requesting page access.)

Typical dorm rooms are small and sparsely furnished with a desk, a closet, a small chest of drawers, and a bed that can usually be lofted to different heights. The shopping checklist my son’s school sent out was a few dozen bullet points of mostly obvious items: towels, hangers, chargers. A comprehensive document floating around on Dorm Chatter is four pages long and includes helpful items I didn’t even think about like water bottles, and things I’m not sure are really necessary, like husband pillows. Once you start getting into decor like fairy lights and ornamental headboards (more on this extremely hot item shortly), you can see how the bill can climb.

This is, of course, on top of ever-increasing college costs that leave many students with debilitating debt. Tuition for the 2020-2021 school year averaged $41,411 at private colleges, and $11,171 for in-state students and $26,809 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to US News data. Room and board can add thousands more to the total.

The McMansioning that is sometimes happening in dorms can have the unfortunate effect of mirroring the financial inequality in society. “You can definitely tell where the equity gaps are based on what someone’s room looks like. We see some people investing quite a bit of money on their residential spaces and then some who can’t afford to do that at all,” says Melantha Ardrey, the director of student life at the College of Charleston.

In a Reddit post a few years ago, a user said she grew up homeless for part of her childhood but was attending “one of the best colleges in the country.” This reality was highlighted before she even got to school. “The most basic dorm supplies at stores [are] incredibly out of my budget. My family and I live paycheck to paycheck so we can’t afford to spend anything else on bedsheets, a comforter, mattress topper, a pillow, toiletries, lamp, etc. It adds up so quickly!” she wrote.

About five years ago, highly designed and coordinated dorm rooms went viral. It’s a trend that has been popular for a while, particularly at Southern schools, per the retailers I spoke to. The concept, with the help of social media, has since trickled into the mainstream. It’s prompted the market to come up with all sorts of specialty items for dorm spaces as well as an often pricey outlook about what a dorm can be.

“Five years ago, it was treated more like, ‘This is like sleepaway camp for the semester.’ And now [students are] treated like adults. This is your first home away from home,” says DormCo founder Jeff Gawronski. When he was a college student in the early 2000s, Gawronski created a bedpost shelf called the Mini Mantle, which allowed students to keep their stuff close by on a lofted bed. He sold it on campus door-to-door, then eventually launched his own company. He founded the current iteration of DormCo in 2010, and it sells everything you can imagine for a dorm room on a rather utilitarian website.

But Amazon, dollar stores, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, and other big-box stores are often the first stop for students of all budget levels. These places are easy and affordable. Target and Bed Bath & Beyond even offer dorm registries that…


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