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Stores revel in college shopping rush

Maddie Hanna | Saturday, August 20, 2005

The Seus women are power shoppers, and South Bend is loving it.

“Gosh, it’s all a blur. We did 90 percent of it today,” exclaimed Saint Mary’s freshman Maureen Seus, referring to her family’s pursuit of the perfect dorm room furnishings for her and sister Chrissy, a Saint Mary’s sophomore.

The Seus family left their home in southern Oregon and came back to South Bend days early to do their shopping here. They’ve already hit Super Target, Meijer and TJ Maxx.

While not everyone may subscribe to the Seus’ “shop-til-you-drop” plan of attack, the mad rush to snatch up the best dorm room deals hits the South Bend area annually as college students return for the school year.

“Second to Christmas, it’s pretty much our busiest season,” said Renee Stevens, assistant manager of the Mishawaka Super Target. “It’s a huge upswing in a small time.”

Stevens said Super Target prepares by designing a staffing plan months in advance, examining what areas were hit hardest by last year’s flood of students, then deciding what merchandise to stockpile.

“We’ll see about a 25-30 percent bump this week and next,” said Tim Corbett, store manager for the Grape Road Meijer. “We turn around and re-merchandise the store almost exclusively for the college students.”

Corbett referred to last Thursday through this Monday as the “five day swing,” Meijer’s busiest sales period.

“It’s up there with Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas,” he said. “It’s very, very strong for the categories it impacts.”

Store managers have been smart about loading their shelves with anything and everything the average college student could need.

“Really, what you’re looking at is anything you’d take to set up an apartment,” Corbett said. “It’s laundry baskets, light bulbs, Brita water filters, beanbags, U-locks…”

“Of course, the basics for school, pens and papers,” Stevens said, “For our college students, it’s the futons, the body pillows … our body pillows are flying off the shelves.”

Even small businesses are getting in on the action. Gwen Addis, assistant manager for the Futon Factory, said she sees a definite sales increase each year.

“We buy more [stock] in general, more less expensive options, because the students already have so much expense,” Addis said.

Some stores also expand their hours for the move-in period. Shirley MacDonald, office manager of the Grape Road Bed, Bath and Beyond, said the store opened earlier and closed later the past few days.

“We normally close at 9:30, but this is to accommodate these kids,” MacDonald said. “Because that’s when everyone usually hits town.”

Most stores have taken some measures to attract students. Some are to be expected, like nationwide advertising campaigns; others are a little more surprising.

Take goldfish drag racing, for example.

“There’s two rain gutters [where the goldfish are dropped]. People pick their goldfish and can win tickets to a drag race,” Corbett said of Meijer’s somewhat bizarre event, held for the second time this year. Meijer has also offered events like rock wall climbing, T-shirt tie-dying and gummy worm and sundae eating contests.

Despite the extra effort required, store managers say they enjoy the annual student swarm, citing the accompanying spike in sales.

“It’s always good when the college students come back,” Stevens said. “It’s just a little bonus. They shop our clothing more. It’s probably good for most South Bend-Mishawaka businesses.”

Corbett said the period gave Meijer a chance to customize its business.

“We really pride ourselves on becoming a destination point for students,” he said. “If you aren’t on top of your game, it shows pretty quick. You get to be more of an entrepreneur, and that’s one of those things we really like.”