Majoring in Mailroom Management
LOS ANGELES — There was the ant farm, the air-conditioner, the barbecue grill. Then there was the chalk, pool cues and pool balls, and the car tires and a bumper.
These are just some of the items delivered recently to mailrooms at universities across the country, a reflection of students’ tastes and online shopping habits.
David J. Amescua, supervisor for incoming mail at the University of Southern California, said the car tires that came through his mailroom arrived unwrapped, with a sturdy tag indicating the intended recipient and the necessary postage.
“That’s the weirdest thing,” said Mr. Amescua, who has worked at the university for more than 30 years. “Now that they have access to buying online, we have all kinds of stuff coming through here.”
The number of packages delivered to U.S.C. has nearly doubled in four years. By Dec. 31, officials expect they will have received more than 67,000 packages in 2007. Other universities have seen similar increases. To handle the volume, some have expanded their facilities or put in new procedures to track the stream of deliveries.
“Some folks don’t realize the logistical implications,” said Jeff Urdahl, who recently retired as director of housing at U.S.C., which has installed a state-of-the-art mailroom half the size of a volleyball court in a new residential building for about 450 students. “It’s a different world.”
At the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York system, the mailroom has handled a dishwasher, a pool table, a refrigerator and a car muffler. At the University of Florida, a student received a box labeled “Winchester,” and had to explain to the university police that he had ordered the ammunition to go on a hunting trip.
It is difficult to gauge how much online spending is driven by college students. But such sales are soaring. Last year, online retail sales rose to nearly $220 billion, according to Shop.org, a division of the National Retail Federation, and this year sales are expected to reach $259 billion.
Online retail sales are approaching 10 percent of total retail sales, according to Shop.org.
Rebecca Johnson, an 18-year-old first-year student at Southern California, said she might buy something online up to three times a week.
“I’m not really shopping every day online,” Ms. Johnson said. “Most of my time online I spend on Facebook.”
But time spent “Facebooking” is also prime shopping time for multitasking students. Another U.S.C. student, Margaret Heck, 18, said she usually checked a few online retailers’ sites whenever she checked in on Facebook. Favorite clothing and apparel sites she and other women named included Wet Seal, Forever 21, Victoria’s Secret and Hot Topic for shoes.
At U.S.C., Simon Lum, 19, ordered the chalk, pool cues and pool balls because he wanted to play pool after the front desk of his dormitory, which provides pool equipment to students, closed. He said that he ordered something online every two weeks or so, but added that he usually sold items on eBay, too, to offset his costs.
“I don’t buy stuff randomly,” Mr. Lum said, noting that when he bought a new pair of headphones, he sold his old ones for $10 more than he had paid.
Sandra Stanton, 18 and a first-year student at U.S.C., said, “I do buy a lot of things, but it’s O.K. because I buy things that are cheap.”
She added, a little sheepishly, that she might spend up to two hours a day scouring the Web for bargains, especially for shoes. “How can I make a fashion statement if I don’t have shoes that don’t match what I’m wearing?”
Matching shoes, Ms. Stanton continued, would be “so fifth grade.”
Several students interviewed for this article said they paid for their online purchases with their earnings from campus jobs, savings from summer internships and allowances from parents. But others said they just charged purchases to their credit cards.
There are not many comprehensive studies of students’ credit card debt, but the loan company Nellie Mae, a unit of Sallie Mae, reported that in 2004, 76 percent of undergraduate students had cards, and that they carried an average balance of $2,169. Other estimates are significantly greater.
Dealing with the increased mailroom activity is also costing colleges money. Pomona College — whose mailroom handled the ant farm, air-conditioner and barbecue grill — spent thousands on a system to scan bar codes, which sends students e-mail messages notifying them when they have packages in the mailroom. Pomona has also expanded its mailroom, making room for more packages.
At SUNY Binghamton, where the number of packages received increased to 57,000 last year, from 33,000 in 2002, officials invested about $25,000 in a bar code scanning system to track packages from the moment of arrival to the time students sign for them.
“We’re hoping that we’ve seen the worst of it,” said Larry Roma, associate vice president for facilities management at the university.
SUNY’s Purchase College has also invested in such a system, at a cost of $37,000. Meanwhile, Arizona State University decided it could not even handle students’ deliveries itself, and handed over mailroom operations to UPS.
Managing a mailroom also raises security concerns for colleges. “Anything you can buy online, they can clearly have delivered though the mail service, and they do,” said Norbert Dunkel, incoming associate president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers International and director of housing at the University of Florida, which intercepted the student’s Winchester package.
In that case, he said, the student was asked to open the package in front of campus police officers; ammunition was inside, which the student intended to take hunting. The police held on to both gun and ammunition, releasing them when the student went hunting and repossessing them when he returned.
There are Web businesses that cater specifically to college students, said Neil B. Gerard, associate dean of students and director of the Smith Campus Center, which contains the mailroom at Pomona. He recalled how a student arriving from Ghana had known all about how to equip her room through her computer, ordering twin extra-long sheets for her bed online.
“She had ordered it from Ghana, and it was delivered to my mailroom the second day she was here,” said Mr. Gerard, whose family initially played host to the student. “She was way ahead of me.”
The ease of ordering items online may be just one more way that the gap between the college experience and the rest of the world has closed, said Fred Turner, an assistant professor in the communication department at Stanford University.
“Universities used to be thought of as isolated places, places that you would go away from the world” to learn and contemplate, Professor Turner said. Today, he continued, “College doesn’t actually work that way for most students.”