THERE'S ALWAYS A CERTAIN AMOUNT of dread and misery about the end of summer that inevitably brings forth panicked thoughts of pop quizzes, book reports and forgotten locker combinations for students who will soon start school.
There's little that parents can do to alleviate most back-to-school angst about acing classes, making friends and nursing unrequited crushes. What they can do, however, is make certain their beloved offspring are fashionably stocked and well prepared with the latest gadgets and gizmos needed to keep up with the program.
Back in the day, that meant tossing out those tired, old brown paper bags and lugging your lunch around in a snazzy Wonder Woman or Dukes of Hazzard lunch box. In the '80s, pencil holders and metal binders were pitched for those shiny, newfangled Mead Trapper Keepers that came along to revolutionize the way cool kids carried their erasers, pens, papers and notebooks in sliding plastic rings, folders, pockets and an ingenious closure.
Nowadays, from bubble calculators to designer spiral notebooks, the hottest school supplies and products are about making personal statements, as well as making life fun, easier and faster, experts say. In a recent survey, Staples found that 80 percent of students try to stay organized and 75 percent said they purchase supplies in the latest colors and styles.
"Students need carryalls with personality," says Josh Thomas, a spokesman for Target, one of the many discount stores for back-to-school shopping. Hot bags this year, he says, include the tech-friendly iPack and the retro-chic Hello Kitty backpack.
"This season," Thomas says, "graphic artists Deanne Cheuk and Evan Hecox created exclusive designs for Target, which are featured on back-to-school must-haves including binders and notebooks."
It's estimated that families will spend about $525 on back-to-school shopping this year, about an 18 percent increase compared to last year, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation and BIGresearch, a market consultant.
Nationwide, families will fork over about $17.6 billion to prepare their children for school this year, up from $13.4 billion last year, the survey says. A sizable chunk of the budget will go toward clothing, according to the survey, but electronics and computer-related equipment such as laptops, personal digital assistants and calculators will account for much of the rest.
"As retailers begin to roll out special promotions and savings, consumers will begin hitting the stores to scoop up essential back-to-school merchandise," says Phil Rist, vice president of strategy for BIGresearch. "This year we will see a variety of unique and fun merchandising strategies, encouraging consumers to begin their shopping sooner rather than later."