Wal-Mart using Facebook to win back-to-school sales

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Forget exchanging letters, phone calls or e-mails. This year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. WMT.N wants students heading to college to log on to Facebook to design their dorm room with their roommate.

The world’s largest retailer on Wednesday is launching the “Roommate Style Match” group on Facebook, a social networking site that has millions of college-age users, in the hopes of grabbing a larger chunk of back-to-school shopping dollars.

Facebook users who join the Wal-Mart group will be able to take a quiz to determine their decorating style and get a list of “recommended products” they can buy at Wal-Mart to mesh their style with their roommate’s.

Students can also download a shopping list of dorm room items sold at Wal-Mart, link to Wal-Mart’s Web site promoting “earth-friendly” products, or click on Soundcheck, Wal-Mart’s Web site showing musical performances by singers like Bon Jovi and Mandy Moore.

“We realize that this is an audience that we need to be talking to, and that this is a channel we need to be on,” said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Karen Burk of the retailer’s decision to try to reach out to college students through a social networking site.

The U.S. back-to-school shopping season began in July and retailers are worried that higher gasoline and grocery prices may crimp students’ and parents’ spending.

Wal-Mart, which has been contending with lackluster sales at its U.S. stores, said last month that gasoline prices were its shoppers’ chief concern.

To try to jump-start back-to-school sales, Wal-Mart has cut prices on more than 16,000 items in its stores and launched a new advertising campaign that emphasizes its low prices.

It has also looked for unique ways to reach college students, who are spending more time online.

Mike Murphy, vice president of media sales at Facebook, said Facebook has 34 million active users, which it defines as users who have logged on in the past month, and he said approximately 40 percent of its users are in college.

“We have the ability ... to target very specifically the target (audience) that Wal-Mart’s looking at,” he said.

The fact that college students, who now often head to campus armed with laptops, cell phones and MP3 players, are shelling out big bucks to go to school has also not been lost on Wal-Mart.

According to a study conducted last year by the National Retail Federation, the average first-year college student spent $1,112.62, mainly on electronics and home furnishings.

“That’s substantial,” Burk said.

The Wal-Mart Facebook group is being launched a month after Wal-Mart finished the roll out of its “Site to Store” program that lets customers order products on its Web site and have them shipped to a local Wal-Mart store for free.

Burk said she expected college students to buy their back-to-school gear in its stores, online and through the new “Site to Store” program, which has helped its in-store sales.

Wal-Mart said it expects to keep the “Roommate Style Match” Facebook group active until October 31.