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LOS ANGELES — As students head back to school and recent graduates start their first jobs, many are using gift registries — long an important feature of weddings and baby showers — to help them nab some of the items they want to set up their dorm rooms and furnish new apartments.

The Container Store, Bed Bath & Beyond and online retailers with names such as DormSmart.com and DormCo.com are encouraging college students to register and clue in relatives who need help with gift ideas.

“I registered at the Container Store for a bunch of different things for my dorm,” said 18-year-old Andrea Castruita, of San Diego, who is starting college in Boston this month. “Then I told my friends and family where I was registered, and if they wanted to get anything they could look at the list.”

The sluggish economy is pushing cash-strapped students and parents to ask Grandma and Grandpa to chip in and buy sheets, backpacks and laptops. Even schools are using the services to get supplies for students.

“For college, you see folks registering for bedding, for storage pieces, towels or robes, and items for the desk,” said Jessica Joyce, a spokeswoman at Union, N.J.-based Bed, Bath & Beyond. “In case anybody wants to give a gift to a graduate for a going-away party, they can go on our site, type in the first and last name, and find ideas.”

The process works much like weddings or baby showers: Students or parents can go online to select desired items, or go into a store and walk through aisles with a scanner to choose what they want. Some retailers will even print out cards with links to the registry that can be tucked into invitations to a graduation bash.

DormSmart.com, an online dorm-supply store, has seen the number of students registering jump 300 percent in the past three years, said Chief Executive Christi Leslie.

Leslie said the sour economy has pushed more college-bound teens to register for items they might have bought with their parents or by using their own money. Among the best-sellers are tool kits and laundry baskets.

“Especially in a tough economy, there seems to be more family participation in buying dorm supplies recently,” Leslie said. “I see frequently that Grandma is ordering, aunts and uncles are ordering and sending to nieces and nephews.”

Tamara Moores, 25, said asking for gifts never crossed her mind in the last months of medical school in Loma Linda, Calif. But then her mother mentioned that their far-flung family members, many of whom planned to see her graduate in May, were eagerly asking for gift ideas.

“There was a big confusion about what I needed,” she said. “I was on the telephone a lot with relatives who wanted to get ideas.”

So Moores searched on the Internet for an efficient way to clue in her family. Instead of jewelry — her mother’s suggestion — she registered for about 15 practical items to outfit her new apartment, including a blender, knives, a milk steamer and other kitchenware.

“It’s stuff that is really, really useful that I wouldn’t buy for myself,” said Moores, who just started her training as an emergency-room doctor in Salt Lake City. “And it was great for the family members who wanted to give more than money. They knew I would like it.”

That’s also a plus for retailers who want to avoid the return of unwanted gifts.

“When people get gifts they don’t want, they get returned, and there is nothing worse for a store,” said Nancy Lee, president of online gift service MyRegistry.com. “When you have a gift registry, people can get exactly what someone wants and needs, and the store makes a final sale.”

Lee said teachers and schools scrambling to plug budget holes are also opting for registries.

“We find a lot of athletic departments at schools are registering for things like soccer nets, 20 basketballs,” she said. “Classroom teachers are asking for things in multiples, like boxes of crayons.”

As for skeptics who raise eyebrows at youngsters demanding gifts, Lee pointed out that traditions change.

“Thirty years ago, people thought if you had a bridal registry you were gauche. Fifteen years ago people were not comfortable with baby registries,” she said. “Now they have become tradition and a part of our culture.”