Walmart kicks off back-to-school season with dorm decor push

Key Points
  • Walmart is rolling out two new ways to shop home furnishings online.
  • The retailer is focusing on dorm decor ahead of the back-to-school season.
  • Amazon has also launched back-to-school and off-to-college pages on its website.
A look at Walmart's virtual room shopping experience, which launches today online.

Walmart is rolling out two new ways to shop home furnishings, with a focus on small living spaces, just in time for the back-to-school season when students are heading off to college and looking for dorm decor.

The efforts build on Walmart's previous investments in its website and promises of more to come. The retailer just finished an overarching redesign of — incorporating Hudson's Bay's Lord & Taylor — and has since been focused on beefing up categories within the site, particularly home and fashion.

The back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons appear to be creeping earlier and earlier each year, with Kohl's announcing Wednesday its plans to kick off seasonal hiring "earlier than ever." Amazon meanwhile has rolled out dedicated back-to-school and off-to-college pages on its website. More deals are expected to pop up around Amazon's Prime Day event, which is typically held in July.

Starting Thursday on, shoppers will be able to take a virtual tour of an already designed apartment room that features roughly 70 items for purchase — both from Walmart's private labels and from national ones. Customers will be able to buy pieces directly from the room and shop different-styled rooms, like bohemian chic.

Then, starting next month, shoppers will be able to "buy the room" — or add all the items in a space curated by Walmart to their shopping baskets at once, if they see a look they really like. For dorms, Walmart said it will start with five rooms, "with each room featuring up to 20 of the most sought-after items college students search for and purchase." The company will benefit from using its vast database of sales data and search history.

What the "buy the room" feature will look like, where shoppers can purchase up to 20 items in a space at once.

"While we are launching these new features for dorm rooms and small space living, we know that they could have applications elsewhere and will continue to listen to customer feedback to determine how to implement them more broadly on the site," Anthony Soohoo, the general manager of Walmart's e-commerce home division, said in a blog post.

"We also continue to build our assortment of great merchandise for all home shoppers," Soohoo added.

It's been about four months since Walmart rolled out a new landing page on its website for home shopping. The company said Thursday it's been receiving "great feedback" regarding the redesign.

The home category is one where many retailers, big and small, are trying to make a stronger push. The category is believed to be less threatened by Amazon, which has focused more on technology, food and apparel of late. Players like IKEA, Restoration Hardware, Wayfair and The Container Store have managed to carve out a share of the market. Target has also been on the forefront, rolling out a slew of home brands this year and in 2017, some with celebrity partners.

The back-to-school and back-to-college season is also an important one for retailers to win, as it can serve as a barometer of a company's position ahead of the holidays.

Last year, total spending for school and college combined reached more than $83 billion, a more than 10 percent increase from 2016, according to The National Retail Federation. A survey by NRF of more than 7,000 consumers found that college families were planning to spend about $5.9 billion on dorm and apartment furnishings alone.

With retail sales trending up, unemployment holding low and the U.S. economy gaining momentum overall, industry analysts expect back-to-school and back-to-college spending to be be even higher this year.

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