Siobhan Spiak and Katie Harada have spent months discussing in painstaking detail the décor of the 185-square-foot dorm room they will share this fall at American University in Washington, D.C.
Together, they envision a bohemian theme: walls painted robin's-egg blue, floor-length mosaic-print curtains, large plush pillows, tribal-print tapestries and strings of hanging Christmas lights. They plan to use soft lighting and touchable fabrics in purples, blues and greens. Ms. Spiak wants to buy a four-poster canopy bed.
A growing number of retailers are creating specialized services for college students, such as online college checklists and videos of design ideas. Bed Bath & Beyond and the Container Store offer college gift registries. Target holds after-hours shopping events featuring dorm specials. And a number of retailers now offer direct-to-dorm delivery.
According to the National Retail Federation, freshman students and their families will spend an average of $374 on dorm furnishings and electronics, making up more than a third of total spending for college goods. Freshman students and families are spending nearly 11% more now than they did five years ago, averaging $929 per family in 2012 compared with $839 in 2007.
Some families predict spending a lot more. Corrie Bowen, whose daughter Nora will be leaving Williston Park, N.Y. to attend Pennsylvania State University, thinks they will shell out closer to $1,500. To attract the campus set, many stores begin advertising for the back-to-school season—the second-biggest shopping period of the year after Christmas—in March.
Ms. Spiak, the freshman from Phoenix, says she spends hours each week browsing online and looks at what her friends are buying online.
Ms. Spiak says she is "paranoid" about falling behind. Less than one week before move-in day, all she bought so far is a spork, a multipurpose utensil she picked up at an art museum. "At least it's a start," she says.
College shopping didn't used to be so complex. Cindy Adams, whose son Marc will be attending the University of Rhode Island in the fall, says when she first went to college, she bought "some sheets, towels, a bedspread and that's pretty much it."
Ms. Adams and her husband Julius, who live in Rego Park, N.Y., are spearheading their son's shopping efforts. "I picked out his pillows and comforter. It's blue-and-white striped," she says. Her husband adds, "We texted him photos."
For his part, Marc contacted his future roommates, and together they identified the essentials. "I'm bringing the microwave, speakers and printer," Marc says. "They're bringing the TV, fridge and the Xbox 360."
Jason Pina, who has worked in student affairs at colleges for nearly 20 years, says he sees fewer roommate pairs showing up with duplicate items because they have already planned in advance.
Janice Katz of Manhattan has also led dorm shopping for her daughter, Jacqui, a freshman attending Tulane University. Ms. Katz picked up the Container Store's college list earlier in the summer, and she and Jacqui ordered more than $400 of stuff, including drawer liners, skinny hangers, poster tabs and bulletin boards. They arranged for the company to ship their purchases to New Orleans.
In recent years, many colleges have updated residence halls as a way to stand out among competitors. Some rooms are equipped with individual room-temperature controls, private bathrooms and built-in flat-screen televisions. Common lounge spaces can feature furnished kitchens, tea and coffee services and study and game tables, like pool, air hockey and ping pong.
Still, the size of the rooms has remained much the same. So as students' shopping lists get longer, they're arriving with more gear than rooms can hold.
Mr. Moody, the American University administrator, says he still sees families show up with U-Hauls on move-in day. After realizing that they can't possibly fit everything into the school's average 180-square-foot dorm room, the parents return home with the truck full of things that didn't make the cut.
Mr. Pina advises students not to worry about remembering every single thing.
"It's better to forget an item or two and bring it later," he says. "You don't have to bring your winter coat in August."
Does your store offer dorm decor, a delivery service, or other move-in essentials? Tell us about them in the comments sections!