Eager to turn young adults into regular customers, big-box retailers and mom-and-pop stores are aggressively targeting the college back-to-school market as thousands of students move into Boston-area universities this week.
Retailers are using a variety of strategies to connect with the potentially lucrative demographic. One is experimenting with a textbook-lending service. Others are adopting the college equivalent of a wedding registry, or they’re busing students to stores.
“The theory of ‘get them while they are young’ continues into the college market,” said Marshal Cohen, a retail analyst with the NPD Group, a market research firm in New York. “It’s all about trying to create a brand loyalty. The freshmen also spend more money than anybody else.”
Consumers are expected to spend $48.4 billion on school supplies, dorm essentials, clothes, computers, and other products for college-bound students this year, according to the National Retail Federation. The federation predicts total back-to-school spending, including K-12, to reach $74.9 billion. Back to school is the second-biggest retail sales event of the year, behind the Christmas and holiday season.
Retailers view the college market as an opportunity to boost sales in an industry struggling with slow growth.
Cohen said the college back-to-school season is particularly attractive because the sales period only lasts a few weeks as students move into dorms or apartments. The brief shopping window allows retailers to boost sales quickly and spend less money on marketing.
“You hit and you run and that’s what retailers are looking for right now,” Cohen said. “It gives them the ability to see if it works, to go after it again next year or move on.”
Staples Inc., the struggling office supply chain based in Framingham, is among several companies experimenting with new strategies this year. The back-to-school period is the biggest and “most important season for Staples,” said Alison Corcoran, senior vice president of North American stores.
The company introduced a textbook-lending program with 5 million titles earlier this year. Staples will ship the books for free and says its rental prices are as much as 90 percent off full-price book sales.
The chain is also offering a 110 percent price match guarantee during the back-to-school season, an aggressive policy to compete with the likes of Amazon.com. Corcoran said Staples is offering the price-match to become a true low-price leader in the market.
Other retailers, such as Target Corp. and Bed Bath and Beyond Inc., have adopted college registries that function like the traditional wedding registry used mostly by brides-to-be to list the champagne glasses, sheets, blenders, and other items they want as gifts.
Target released its college registry in June, so high school seniors had time before graduation parties to tell family and friends about the mini-refrigerators, desk lamps, extra-long twin sheets, and televisions they need to fill their dorm rooms.
The NRF predicts that Americans will spend $4.7 billion on graduation presents in 2014.
Target also partners with universities to bus about 80,000 students to its stores for annual after-hours sales events with live DJs, free samples, and gift cards from outside vendors. Jenna Reck, a Target spokeswoman, said the events orient students to the nearest Target store from campus and help the company connect with them.
“There’s a big list of things that you’re looking to get as you move into an apartment or dorm for the first time,” Reck said. “It’s also when students start developing their brand preferences. It’s a great time to get in front of college kids.”
The company had an event for Boston College students at its Watertown store Friday and has another scheduled with Tufts University students at a Medford store Sunday.
Some businesses, such as Tags Hardware in Cambridge, rely on one age-old marketing technique — a great location. The family-owned housewares and hardware store on the MBTA’s Red Line in Porter Square expects to serve 2,000 college students, apartment-dwellers, and their families daily over Labor Day weekend.
Simon Shapiro, copresident of Tags, said this weekend will be especially busy for his business. Several colleges have scheduled move-in dates this weekend and the most annual leases in the Boston urban area begin on Sept. 1. Shapiro said he’s been preparing for the rush since March.
Tags also plays to its young customers and stocks 80,000 items ranging from hangers and storage containers to lighting and home decor. The store even has bolts and fasteners that fit most IKEA furniture.
“It’s bigger than Black Friday for us,” Shapiro said. “This is where you create shopping trends for the consumer. If they have a good experience and find what they want, they’ll be back.”