Dormify back-to-college partnership with The Container Store makes the grade

How to tap into a share of the $94 billion back-to-college market
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor
August 16, 2023

While many have been distracted by the crayons, notebooks and glue sticks of the younger set, Dormify and The Container Store have been majoring in something else: strategic alignment, cross-generational understanding and a shop-in-shop partnership to capture this year’s record-breaking back-to-college spend.

The latest annual survey from NRF and Prosper Insights & Analytics shows that consumers are expected to spend $41.5 billion on back-to-school, up from $36.9 billion last year. As for back-to-college, that spending is expected to reach $94 billion — an increase of about $20 billion since last year.

College students need ‘more stuff’

Those going to college, reasons Katherine Cullen, NRF vice president of industry and consumer insights, “need a lot more stuff” to live away from home. This year in particular, the numbers are driven by big-ticket items like electronics: 68% of back-to-college shoppers (and 69% of back-to-school shoppers) planned to buy electronics this year, compared with 52% and 56% a decade ago, respectively.

68% of back-to-college shoppers planned to buy electronics this year.

Other top areas for college are clothing and accessories, and dorm and apartment furnishings.  Dormify, an online destination for stylish college and post-grad décor since 2011, has seen significant growth in its storage furniture category.

Co-founder, President and Chief Brand Officer Amanda Zuckerman says Dormify has become known for a three-drawer charging cart in particular, a multi-purpose bedside stand on wheels with built-in USB ports and outlets. This year, for the first time, shoppers could see the cart — along with bedding, throw blankets, headboards and other core Dormify items — in person at The Container Store.

The assortment has been available for a limited time in a half-dozen store pop-ups, and 35 stores have been showing bed displays that market the online assortment. There’s been a significant push to drive shoppers online, where more than 90 Dormify products are available for dropshipping.

What Gen Z wants

“Individuality is so important to this generation,” Zuckerman says. They also mix high and low price points, in the same way they might “wear a T-shirt from Zara and carry a designer bag.” Dormify has begun catering to every budget, including offering value-priced sheets, towels and other items. The Container Store has always been at the top of the list as a potential partner, she says, with similar customers providing a complementary relationship.

Having items in bricks-and-mortar stores near college campuses allows for a one-stop shopping experience, one in which Gen Z gets to choose, and Mom or Dad — scoring that “extra-cool” factor for finding items there — likely pays. The older generation also can touch, feel and check for value in a way they can’t online.

The Container Store knows storage; Dormify specializes in maximizing style and on-trend bedding and décor. As for making the shopping fun? That goes beyond “inspo-worthy” designs searchable by aesthetic or color. There’s also a dorm checklist spreadsheet customers can receive by providing an email, as well as “must have” lists for different dorm areas.

Catering to the family who shops

As for the parents, Dormify greatly values their feedback, and connects with them on Facebook and Instagram. “There’s so much peer-to-peer communication happening,” Zuckerman says. “Having a community for parents is important, without taking away from the community for students.” The company also offers a student ambassador program, allowing shoppers to create content, influence decisions and receive discounts.

Stacey Shively, chief merchandising officer at The Container Store, just joined the company in November 2022 and was immediately interested in maximizing the partnership on both sides. She knew The Container Store could benefit from Dormify’s strengths in trends and help fill a gap in soft goods.

Dormify brought its bestsellers to the table rather than creating a new collection, and The Container Store helped create an endless aisle.

The Container’s Store shopper is typically “higher in age,” Shively says. “But we know it’s a store where the family really shops. We know that even though Mom is shopping, the child is still making those decisions.” An added bonus: The companies are aligned from a sustainability standpoint, offering products that are built to last; that, too, is appealing to both generations.

“We view ourselves as really providing solutions for everyday life,” she says. “Sometimes when you shop, it can be really overwhelming.” But careful curation and selection — especially on trend — makes things simple.

New reasons to shop

The Container Store is looking toward back-to-college 2024, exploring trends like bringing pets to school. There’s also the “fifth quarter” after the holidays, with a refresh for the spring semester. The company has surveyed parents and students about what was on their shopping lists that wasn’t yet available at the store, leading to additions such as Vornado fans and Hydro Flask water bottles.

“How do we keep pushing the limits?” Shively asks. “Customers are already coming to us. Let’s make their trip a little easier.”


Check out our back-to-school headquarters and learn more about consumer spending this academic year.

Overall, The Container Store has been hyper-focused on giving customers new reasons to shop, including determining six unique “pulse points” throughout the year such as back-to-school. Working with Dormify for this one, she says, “has exceeded all of our expectations.”

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The NRF/Prosper Insights & Analytics research showed that 43% of back-to-college shoppers agreed that they “need more new items this year,” compared with 32% in 2022. Yet only 32% say they expected costs to be higher this year, compared with 42% in 2022.

Cullen notes that these numbers don’t appear to be driven by inflation. “Clearly, there’s a higher demand.” Consumers may be a bit less brand loyal in 2023, but they’re still prioritizing what’s important to them, and “wanting to spend where it matters,” she says. Some 39% of shoppers say they’re cutting back in other areas to fund back-to-class. In keeping with other major shopping events, they’re making those purchases earlier than ever, too.

Good thing, as some of the most popular items at Dormify sold out.

“Everybody said back-to-college would be great this year,” Shively says. “With some retailers going out of business, to have it perform the way it has — and to have customers respond in the way they have — is amazing. And this is just the start of things to come.”

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