A group of young women ran into the Target store in East Liberty and grabbed a cart. "That way, that way," one shouted, as the others scrambled toward the wrong escalator.
Dave Melocchi, store team leader, watched with some concern. Not that he was opposed to a little craziness.
Before long, staffers were shaving heads in return for $50 gift cards and a Bic Flex4 pack of shavers. A disc jockey in the infant/toddler clothing department was cranking up the dance hit "Barbra Streisand." Young men charged through the toy department hunting for hockey sticks. Over in the food aisle, a customer rode around in a shopping cart pushed by her friend.
The back-to-college season is in full swing, and late on a rainy Thursday night -- long after most of the usual shoppers had gone home -- hundreds of University of Pittsburgh students participated in what the Minneapolis retail chain has turned into a campus tradition around the country. The company expects 90,000 students nationally to participate in its after-hours shopping events this year, in which Target provides buses to deliver hordes of mostly freshmen to its stores.
That's one way to get in front of young customers, who have been in relatively short supply in the malls and shopping centers this summer if recent earnings reports from retailers targeting that market are any indication.
The National Retail Federation this week said families are hunting down discounts and sales as the economy keeps a curb on their spending.
The vibe at the Target on Penn Avenue this week -- a beacon of light and music on a dark, damp night -- was more college party than carefully planned shopping expedition. Students were looking for a fun diversion before classes start -- and maybe to buy a few things that their parents didn't already pick up.
Lenzner charter buses began arriving around 10:30 p.m., dumping wave after wave of students into the store entrance. By 11:30 p.m., the checkout line wound around several aisles as an employee directed customers to the next open register and young people pushed carts filled with bottled water and plastic cups, laundry detergent, cereal boxes, Coca-Cola and more.
A little earlier, Matt Noel, a freshman from Littlestown, Pa., stood with a group of new acquaintances watching other students throw bean bags at images of Scrubbing Bubbles and Windex on a stand set up in the boys' clothing department.
Mr. Noel didn't have a shopping list. "It's more the experience. It's like Black Friday for students," he said.
One of his new classmates, Matt O'Connor, a freshman from Shaler, didn't need anything either but came because his sister had passed along the Target lore.
Alexa Packard, a freshman from New Middletown, Ohio, had been in the same store a few days earlier stocking up -- but then there weren't games, prizes and stacks of goods targeted to college types such as pillows, printer paper and goodie bags for everyone.
The games, sort of like the ones at a school fair, were not always a smashing success. Tossing a pair of supersized dice that showed different products on each side proved challenging. Players had to get matching images to land face-up in order to win sweat bands or sunglasses with the sponsors' brand names on them.
Staff stationed in the toy aisles urged students to text in order to win prizes, prompting those walking by to automatically pull out cell phones.
Tyler Stelmack, a freshman from New Tripoli, Pa., stood in line to have his already short hair shaved off to earn money to buy a new chair for his dorm room. "It's free money," he said. "I don't have long hair anyway. It grows back quick."
Workers at that booth signed up nine volunteers and got five heads shaved before they were alerted the deal was only supposed to apply to people who didn't already have buzz cuts. An hour later, the chair sat empty.
Meanwhile, Mr. Melocchi was feeling pretty good about how his 50 team members were keeping things moving along, and he estimated the final crowd count would hit the 2,500-to-3,000 range.
The event had been publicized, included on an orientation app and otherwise marketed to Pitt students earlier in the week. This was the third year for the after-hours event at the East Liberty store and Mr. Melocchi said the first year brought 800 students and last year drew 1,500.
No one was entirely sure what the sudden rainstorm just before buses started running would mean for turnout, but students who came didn't seem discouraged. A few grabbed umbrellas and raincoats for their baskets.
Target has been running such events at various schools around the country for more than 15 years, a company spokeswoman said. The company doesn't disclose details of its partnerships, but Kenyon R. Bonner, associate dean of students and director of student life at Pitt, said it has been a good deal for the school.
Mr. Bonner said the retailer's marketing firm, Periscope Inc., approached the university a few years ago. "Target's promotion was attractive because it costs the university nothing to do," he said. "In fact, Target employs 30 to 60 Pitt students, provides our students with complimentary transportation to and from the East Liberty Target, and gives away an enormous amount of free merchandise and samples to students."
Mr. Bonner said he has gone to all three Pitt events himself. "The students have fun, leave with items that they need/want and do not have to worry about how to get their 22-inch TV or four cases of Ramen noodles from Target to Tower B on a Port Authority bus!"
Students unfamiliar with the area also get an introduction to the store, even though the East Liberty site isn't exactly next door to the concentration of campuses in Oakland. Just before the after-hours party began, three new graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University paid for bean bag chairs and a 37-inch television and then prepared to walk 20 minutes back to their Shadyside dwellings.
Rebecca Coopie, a Pitt sophomore from Jefferson Hills, and Brian Kelly, a Pitt senior from Cranberry, took a Port Authority bus to the after-hours event, since they recalled long waits last year for the Target shuttles. An hour before this year's event, they also checked the retailer's website for coupons.
"We might as well save money because we're poor college students," said Ms. Coopie, who came mostly for grocery items. They were planning to use the shuttle buses to get back to campus.
For others it was a night for bonding and camaraderie.
A young man walked by carrying four big bags of Swedish Fish. "Are you sure you want 10 pounds?" a friend asked.
"It's technically not 10 pounds. Fine, it's nine point ..."
Over in the main aisle, two new acquaintances wandered past the detergent shelves. She: "Where are you from?" He: "I'm from Cranberry Township."
And then, he followed up: "Where are you from?"education - neigh_city - businessnews
Teresa F. Lindeman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2018. First Published August 24, 2013 4:00 AM