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The Ultimate in Back-to-School Shopping

My personal journey to an empty nest

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I kept thinking I had plenty of time, and then before I knew what hit me, I was completely out of time. My one and only child was about to start college. After the drama that was our collective college application and acceptance experience, my daughter decided to attend her father’s alma mater, Louisiana State University. As the summer waned, I realized it was time to get moving on the preparations for her departure. Having, myself, attended a college that was far enough from home to warrant flying instead of driving, I started strategizing how to get the components of my daughter’s daily life to her new Southern home.

It was during these rapidly evaporating weeks that I discovered that Bed Bath & Beyond was about to become my new best friend. One day, I received a flier in the mail with the mother of all Bed Bath & Beyond coupons: 20 percent off your entire order. The flier was a small pamphlet, branded “Campus & Beyond,” which conveniently contained an itemized list of typical dorm needs. The flier itself was a testament to consumer behavior studies: It was nicely laid out in a succinct checklist format, organized by category, and utilizing a soothing palette of soft pastel tones, ones I imagine were meant to ease the tensions of parents opening the mail.

Around this time, I also received a mailer from the university containing roughly the same checklist that I had received from Bed Bath & Beyond, offering the opportunity to purchase linens, towels and assorted accessories directly from them. During this preparatory phase, I discovered that dorm rooms have “extra-long” twin beds, so it seemed to me that buying the sheets through the university was probably the safest course. But this did not prevent the much-anticipated visit to Bed Bath & Beyond.

We went one evening after work, as I had gone home early to pack in one more of the seemingly endless amount of doctor visits for my daughter before she left the state. (You’d think she was never coming back.) Anyway, this doctor visit, which I had added myself into the mix, in the name of efficiency, happened to be the optometrist, and as you would expect, we both had our eyes dilated during the visit to facilitate our respective examinations. It’s not a fact that’s particularly relevant to the point of this blog, except for the sheer comedy of having to walk around Bed Bath & Beyond with sunglasses on because the brightness of the space was painful to both of us.

Upon entry, I asked one of the sales associates how to go about using their “Pack & Hold” registry program. While the Campus & Beyond flier had probably explained the program in detail, I had been remiss in actually reading the whole thing. (Luckily, one of my daughter’s friends worked at a Bed Bath & Beyond and had told her about how the program worked.) It’s basically the back-to-school equivalent of a bridal registry: They arm you with a scanner gun and let you loose on the store to select your items.

As a guide for your purchasing needs, they tap into a database that contains an itemization of dorm room contents by specific college or university, and by specific dormitory. It provides residence hall guidelines and listings of both what to bring as well as what not to bring. This I thought was a fantastic idea, mostly because we had failed to take adequate pictures of the mock dorm room we saw during her freshman orientation tour. It also settled our ridiculous yet heated debate – both of us wearing our sunglasses in the middle of the furnishings section – as to whether or not the desk would have a chair. Although, really, how could they not give you a chair if they gave you a desk? Lesson one in critical thinking: Who needs college? I think she just wanted the chair.

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Fast forward two weeks later, we found ourselves standing in a Bed Bath & Beyond located in Baton Rouge, La., to collect her preselected Pack & Hold items. The sales associates were all eager to help, and scurried to the stockroom to retrieve the booty. With her registry list in hand, my daughter went through the two boxes carefully to ensure all was correct. I would say, ultimately, the assemblage was about 60 percent correct. Some items were missing, for which my ex-husband and I were promptly dispatched to go find. Some items were close, but not entirely right: One, they had included a decorative pillow per the list, but not the exact pillow she wanted. (She went and found that one herself after she looked up from her list to see her father and I looking at her with what I am very sure were annoyed expressions on our faces.) And second, the stacking drawers they had packed were in white, but she wanted the aqua.

All in all, even though I don’t think it saved us any time, it did save us from the dilemma we faced in getting these bulky items to her without having to drive to Baton Rouge from New Jersey… with my ex-husband. I did, after all, get divorced for some very good reasons. So Bed Bath & Beyond was the hero of this story. Value added? You bet! A terrific example of identifying white space in the market, taking what you’re good at and supersizing it. Something all retailers need to be doing today not only to survive but thrive.

Kathleen Jordan, AIA, CID, LEED AP, is a principal in Gensler’s New York office, and a leader of its retail practice with over 24 years of experience across the United States and internationally. Jordan has led a broad range of retail design projects as both an outside consultant and as an in-house designer. She has led projects from merchandising and design development all the way through construction documentation and administration, and many of her projects have earned national and international design awards. Contact her at kathleen_jordan@gensler.com.

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