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Retail programs send teens packing

The average household is poised to spend about $457 on Back-to-School this month, and retailers' home departments are targeting teen and "dorm age" kids in their bid to capture some of those dollars.

Teenagers are increasingly more fashion-savvy and confident in their individuality, and ever persuasive with their parents' dollars, according to the National Retail Federation, which recently surveyed households with at least one child age 6 to 17 years old.

Forty percent of the respondents said that these purchases will also be made over a period of four separate shopping trips, while 16 percent said they will shop five visits. Though parents are strapped for time, president and ceo Tracy Mullen said they still feel the need to comparison shop.

The International Mass Retail Association also released a report stating that August looks promising for mass retail sales. About 42 percent of consumers are shopping for Back-to-School items this year, according to IMRA's survey of 1,000 consumers, the majority of which plan to shop in August.

"August is a big month for soft home," said Stephanie Brown, spokeswoman, JCPenney.

And those incoming tax rebates of $300 or $600 should certainly help consumers heading to the stores.

Dorm dwellers are the primary target of most retailers' Back-to-School programs, and choices are found all over: in stores, catalogs, direct mail pieces and on websites.

Kohl's learned a lot from last year's Back-to-School season, said Chris Candee, dmm, which was the first time the department store retailer merchandised Back-to-School items together. That area, called My Space and located in seasonal, is repeated again this year, but the accessories and apparel items included last year were moved, and the area now only carries domestics and housewares. "We're trying to maximize the basis businesses — pillows and pads, extra long sheets and blankets, etc.," he said. Back-to-School accent rugs, decorative and body pillows and the like round out the assortment in My Space, and the regular assortment of My Room My Way is also included.

Designs are more fashionable this year, he added, and Kohl's Mudd bedding license debuts this season. Though overall patterns hit mostly a college-bound audience, he said, Kohl's has found that patterns appeal to customers of many ages. Juvenile patterns, for example, will also be bought by college kids.

The Back-to-School (BTS) season is definitely a key opportunity, Candee said. "The early read is off to a nice start."

Federated gears its assortment to the lifestyle of the college-age consumer, said Tom Papantonio, merchandising group vp, and the company developed a Back-to-School checklist that includes key items like extra-long-twin dorm bedding sets, towels, blankets and comforter covers.

"The BTS handle gives us an opportunity to maximize the overall youth business during that time period," he said. "Parents may see the new product and want to buy it for their children, even if the kids are not going away to school. Plus, youth in general — whether or not they're buying for BTS — will be attracted to the product."

Kmart's assortment this year targets the "younger, hipper teen customer," and more emphasis has been placed on bedding, the company said. Jersey sheets are back in the mix, and designs overall are fun and fashionable vs. the solid-color mix sold several years ago. Back-to-School domestics will be merchandised within the domestics area. Kmart bowed its first national circular July 22.

Wal-Mart is also looking at the college consumer, and treats the Back-to-School season as it always has: an important season for the retailer. And it still caters to the younger teen and elementary school set as well. Its Back-to-School merchandise will also be located within domestics.

Federated's Tommy Hilfiger product will include girl and boy fashions this season. Jack, for example, is a masculine pattern with denim core components complemented by a red/white stripe, blue ticking stripes and patchwork plaid. The feminine Jenna design also builds on denim looks, with coordinating decorative pillows and shams in pink and red florals. Ralph Lauren's Survival Kits, consisting of bed in a bags, have also just hit the selling floor.

Federated also works the male angle more this year, adding a hip marketing twist, he said, and some of its divisions will use the handle "Back to Cool."

All retailers are increasing their dorm fashions, said JCPenney's Brown. "Kids are paying a lot more attention to bedding," he said, as an example. "It's a form of self expression."

JCPenney will be offering comforters such as plaid, reversible solid and denim and will continue the popular bed-in-a-bag items. In addition, solid, extra-long sheets, fleece throws, bed rests and cushions, and oversized towels are on the dorm checklists in the stores.

The Back-to-School items are very price-sensitive, she added, since teens are either relying on parents for purchases or are using their own money.

Bed Bath and Beyond has debuted its MTV licensed products in stores and online, with product by WestPoint Stevens, Springs, Divatex, Glenoit and other manufacturers.

Swedish retailer IKEA also features Back-to-School items, including bedding and bath throughout the store and online, though it is focusing on the home office and storage. It also sent out direct-mail pieces to entice consumers to the stores.

This was also the first year IKEA conducted a Back-to-School survey, querying 600 students on dorm life. One of the results indicated that 57 percent of males who brought a white blanket to college reported having a GPA of 3.6 or higher, while not one male who brought a green blanket had a GPA of 3.6 or higher, which may or may not explain some students' report cards.

Teen catalog and retailer Delia's offers its target audience of 14- to 18-year-old girls bedding in its Roomwares section. Consisting primarily of print sheets, which account for well above 50 percent of the section's sales, said Gideon Walter, gmm, the section has extended to now include pillows, curtains, floor coverings and wall coverings. "It's an important part of business," he said. "Kids can create an identity for themselves in two areas: their clothes and their rooms. We hope not only to fill their closets, but to fill their beds and rooms with Delia's merchandise." Its Back-to-School business has grown significantly from last year, he added, and it has found that a large portion of purchases are made by parents.

Since most college-bound coeds use the computer like it's a third arm, Web presentation remains a top priority as well. Retailers use eye-catching graphics and colors on their Back-to-School pages and, along with the products, mix in editorial, lists, decorating advice — even recipes for those students who can't stomach cafeteria food — to draw visitors in. Along with dorm stuff, for example, Bed Bath and Beyond features Memoirs of a Freshman, "Insightful stories any student can relate to," and a contest to win a Suzuki XL-7 and $1,000 of Bed Bath merchandise.

Even home improvement chain Lowe's has a Back to Campus page on its website. Though the assortment focuses on hard stuff like surge protectors and lamps, the company knows that students need rugs as well, providing detailed information on weaving methods and rug care. Lowe's also lists the school colors of a variety of colleges so dorm rooms can match.

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