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Online Vendors Shift to Target Back-To-School College Students

By Bob Tedeschi
THE NEW YORK TIMES

For years, older teenagers have been the darlings of online marketers, who see these tech-savvy, free-spending legions as potential lifelong customers.

So why has it taken them this long to discover college students?

The back-to-school shopping season is nearing its culmination, but if this month’s retail offerings are any indication, 2006 was more back-to-college than anything else.

“It’s all about the college students this year,” said Brian Smith, an online retail analyst and publisher of ComparisonEngines.com, which covers shopping comparison sites. “They have more disposable income than other students, and a lot of times they’re looking for that cool new tech product.”

According to the National Retail Federation, an industry trade group, the fastest-growing back-to-college categories include ones that play to the strengths of online retailers, like consumer electronics, computers and even furniture, which is starting to gain momentum with online consumers.

Sears Holdings, which owns Sears, Lands’ End and Kmart, has gone further than most other online retailers in appealing to college students this year by creating a Web site, SimplySearsCollege.com. Like other online executives, Lorna Sargent, director of e-commerce content for Sears Holdings, struggled to explain why retailers chose this year to pursue college students with such zeal.

“Everyone just kind of realized there was this untapped market out there,” Sargent said.

Perhaps fittingly, the site is designed for visitors who might like to relax a bit, browsing articles and interacting with various features, rather than rushing through the purchase process. Visitors are greeted with background music ranging from retro rock to contemporary metal, and a screen that bristles with features like idea lists and articles and videos about surviving freshman year.

Those offerings are backed, meanwhile, by a rotating series of oversize images of college students and their gear. A fit young woman, for example, smiles next to “Avoiding the Freshman 15,” a teaser for workout products. Those products include $20 Reebok running shoes, a $161 SanDisk MP3 player and a $200 Schwinn bicycle.

Sargent said SimplySearsCollege.com, which was introduced late last month and is featured as a link on Sears.com, also represents another first for the company, in that Sears Holdings has never before integrated products from Lands’ End, Kmart and Sears on one site.