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The gadgets rule.

This story first appeared in the September 23, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

With classes under way on college campuses across the U.S., students are spending more on computers, cell phones, MP3 players and other electronic gear and cutting back on apparel.

A survey by the National Retail Federation said just less than $13 billion would be spent on electronics and computer-related equipment, compared with $11 billion last year. Clothing and accessories ranked second at $5.77 billion, down from $7 billion; dormitory and apartment furnishings, $3.9 billion, versus $4.74 billion, and shoe purchases, $2.82 billion, down from $3 billion in 2008.

Despite the recession, college students and their parents will spend about $34.4 billion to return to campus this year, up 33.8 percent from 2004.

Clothing and accessories purchases will average $118.56 per student, down from $134.40 last year and $149.85 in 2007, the NRF said. Footwear sales will average $57.85, compared with $58.46 last year.

Electronics sales will rise to $266.08 per student, compared with $211.89 last year.

The NRF study, conducted by BIGresearch and based on the responses of 8,367 consumers, found that 83 percent of students and parents said the recession had affected their spending, with 48 percent planning to spend less. In addition, 33.6 percent of students said that, instead of buying new basic items needed for classes, they will get by with products from last year. For example, 17.4 percent will share or borrow textbooks instead of purchasing new ones.

“The economy is forcing young adults to make hard decisions about which schools to attend, where to live and what’s really a necessity for college,” said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive officer of NRF. “This year, college students are just as focused as their parents on finding good deals and making smart choices.”

And that may be tough on stores. “The bad news for retailers is that the number of students living at home is up 20 percent in the last two years [because of the recession], so that means they don’t have to buy a microwave, silverware or sheets because they still live with mom and pop,” said Ellen Davis, NRF senior vice president.

Despite economic hardships, college students are not cutting purchases of products they consider necessary, according to the College Explorer survey by Alloy Media + Marketing.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, said that, unlike previous generations, the college population for the last three years has “lived and breathed” online, which puts computer-related gear at the top of their shopping lists.

The 13.8 million students at colleges and universities have record spending power of $250 billion, up almost 6 percent over last year, said the study, which was conducted by Harris Interactive and surveyed 1,521 students ages 18 to 34.

The researchers found that, while students feel less secure about financial conditions, 35 percent are optimistic the economy will improve in the next year.

Although costs are a concern, 61 percent of students are open to trying new brands, and 43 percent prefer to buy labels they consider to be socially responsible, the study said.

“College students are showing care when it comes to their purchasing decisions,” said Dana Markow, vice president and senior consultant at Harris Interactive.

Asked in the Alloy Media survey to list brands that make them feel happy, students ranked Clinique at number one, followed by Apple, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Target; Wrigley and Sony (tied), and Wal-Mart, Dove and Hershey (three-way tie).

Brands students selected tended to be ones they had grown up using and were most familiar with, as well as those they felt added value to their lives, said Alloy spokeswoman Jodi Smith.

The most trusted brands were Johnson & Johnson, Sony, Apple and Colgate; Microsoft and Coca-Cola (tied); Toyota; and Nike and Bank of America (tied), and Target and Dell (tied).

The brands they chose tended to be those they considered to be socially responsible, Smith noted.