On a recent Sunday, I found myself at my local Bed Bath & Beyond surrounded by crazed scanner-wielding teenagers racing around the store and zapping the bar codes on towels, pillows, and mini microwaves as if they were on some sort of TV game show. There was a slight sense of urgency in the air. The kids seemed to feel that if they didn’t quickly scan that particular desk lamp or comforter, it might disappear forever. It felt a bit like being at the mall on Christmas Eve, but with only 17 and 18-year-olds.
Welcome to college dorm room shopping in 2017.
I was at the Los Angeles outpost of this mega chain with my daughter Kayla, who is bound for Barnard this fall. We were surrounded by dozens of other recent high school grads, most accompanied by their moms—a few with their dads and some with both. All of us were taking advantage of the big 20 percent off your entire purchase event for those entering college.
For the most part, the parents were pushing shopping carts, looking dazed and confused as they tried to discern the distinctions between sheet thread counts and incandescent vs halogen light bulbs while writing check marks on the long lists they held in their hands.
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Full disclosure: This wasn’t my first BB&B dorm room rodeo. Three years ago I had done this exact thing with my daughter Siena, 21, now a senior at Stanford. But here I was, back for more, and I felt the same way about Bed Bath & Beyond I did then: That they are brilliant marketers when it comes to all things back to school.
And although it sort of sucks you into feeling like you’re a negligent parent if your kid doesn’t have that surge protector or dry erase board, it’s also great service. You simply show up at the store nearest you and tell them what college your kid is attending. They feed it into a computer, and voila, out pops a list of suggested dorm room items specific to THAT college. But let’s face it, the University of Michigan pretty much allows and forbids the same in-dorm items as the University of Southern California Speakers? Fine. Candles? Forbidden
Once they hand your child a scanner, the games begin. And you don’t even have to pay then and there! You simply pick up your loot at the BB&B closest to your son or daughter's new college campus.
The funny thing about this whole exercise is that it’s both a distraction from what is actually happening—YOUR CHILD IS LEAVING HOME!—but it’s also a reminder.
The distraction part happens when you get so caught up in making sure your kid has everything they “need” (A shower caddy! A laundry basket! An electric fan!) that you sort of forget what it represents (the impending reality that there will be one less person at your dinner table come September).
It makes me think of the bride and groom that get so fixated on their wedding registry and whether they want a cappuccino machine or a waffle maker, that they aren’t really thinking about what they are actually DOING by pledging their love to each other for the rest of their lives.
Going through a checklist also gives you a false sense of security that your child will be that much more “prepared” for college life. What you can’t give them in terms of daily advice and guidance by being there in person you can make up for with “stuff.” Right?
It's retail therapy at its finest.
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When I went to college, I packed up my blue Datsun with the quilt I’d had for five years, two old suitcases full of clothes, my crappy stereo, speakers, and a bunch of albums. That was it.
These days, there’s endless chin stroking and head scratching about mini fridges, dust busters, and cordless irons. (Do college kids even “dust bust?” I'm not sure if Siena ever vacuumed her dorm room).
But there I was, following Kayla around as she scanned the bar codes for wash cloths, extension cords, and storage containers as if her life depended on it. We had to get a duvet, a mattress pad, and a mattress cover. (Yes, a mattress cover). Oh, and did we want the hypoallergenic one that also prevents bed bugs? Wait. What? Really? Ew! Am I a bad parent if I don’t cough up the extra dough to save my kid from bug bites?
“What’s wrong with the new sheets I bought when you went to music camp?” I asked at one point. “Mom, those are twin,” she replied matter-of-factly. “The mattresses in my dorm room are Twin XL.” Oh. Right.
After all that, we couldn’t get everything at BB&B. I mean, a girl doesn’t want her dorm room to look like every other girls’. So there were also some online excursions to the Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie websites for a cool duvet cover, twinkly lights, and other important décor. Cha ching!
Whatever—we both got totally sucked in and went for it, hook, line, and credit card.
But there were also moments when the whole shopping experience served not as a distraction but a REMINDER of what was about to occur.
Watching my daughter scan those pillowcases made me realize that I would no longer be waking her up late on Sunday mornings, her pillow over her head to block out the sunlight. And as she snatched up a mirror to hang over her dorm door, it reminded me of how she gives her reflection a last minute once-over before heading out to school. When she opted for a gold desk lamp, it made me laugh because she never studies at her desk—she spreads her work out around on her bed.
Is she going to use all this stuff? Probably not. I don’t think Siena ever used her sewing kit or shoe rack. But that’s not really the point. It just makes some of us parents feel good supplying it.
Plus, we passed on the fuzzy lounge chair, the clothes drying rack, and the coffee maker. So let’s just hope she doesn’t have any guests over, a broken clothes dryer, or the need to make a cup of joe in her room.