- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 9, 2006

Paper, pencils, notebooks and maybe a graphing calculator — that was it.

Now, the shopping list of parents whose children are heading back to school might include a laptop, IPod, MP3 player or the latest learning software.

In an era in which BlackBerrys are ubiquitous and laptops and cell phones commonplace, not just college students need to have the latest technology for school.

Parents of middle school and high school children find themselves shopping more than ever for electronic school supplies.

“You have to,” Cynthia Paine said, as she was buying her 16-year-old son a desktop computer at Best Buy for the upcoming school year.

“[My children] on a daily basis have assignments that are on the Internet. We find we have to a computer for each of them,” said Mrs. Paine, a 42-year-old McLean resident and mother of four children.

According to a recent survey, back-to-school spending on electronics for students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade will reach $3.82 billion, up $1.5 billion from last year.

This will give a big boost to total school spending in 2006, which will reach a record $17.6 billion, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2006 Back-to-School Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey. The spending total has increased $13.4 billion from last year.

Purchases for school supplies such as personal digital assistants and laptops are increasing because electronics are not only useful for class work, but also they are becoming accessories, said Scott Krugman, a NRF spokesman.

“If it’s back to school related, kids want it to go back to school. Do I think it’s particularly needed in the classroom — probably not,” Mr. Krugman said. “It used to be what kind of sneakers and what kind of jeans [to buy for school]. Now its about what kind of cell phone or IPod.”

Josh Paine, the 16-year-old who just got the new computer, said he’s noticing the trend in his school.

“In the past two years, I’ve seen tons of IPods and cell phones. It didn’t use to be like that,” he said.

Retailers see it, too, and their advertising is following suit, even if certain merchandise isn’t needed for class work.

Best Buy’s Web site features lists of school supplies under the title “High School Prerequisites” and “Elementary Necessities.” Flash drives, camcorders, digital cameras, cell phones, education software and hand-held Leapster learning games are all featured under the checklists.

“It’s just adding a different type of enjoyment to their lifestyle,” said Duc Dang, a Best Buy customer-experience manager. He added that school supplies don’t have to be just for studying.

Even though tax-free holidays are mostly for clothing sales, electronics stores also using the holidays to attract school shoppers. During Virginia’s tax-free holiday last weekend, Best Buy and Circuit City stores sold all their merchandise as tax free. Washington’s tax-free holiday extends through through Sunday, while Maryland’s is from Aug. 23 through Aug. 27.

Retailers are also incorporating older technology into conventional school supplies. Staples is selling the $1.99 Backpack Calculator, which can clip onto a backpack’s buckles and straps.

“That’s just kind of a fun aspect we developed to keep calculators fun, because they can get boring,” said David Figler, vice president of divisional merchandise and manager of technology for Staples Inc.

They’ve also marketed their MP3 players, which consumers typically buy from $39 to $99, as back-to-school items, he said.

“It’s hard to say it’s a back-to-school item, but we’re marketing it to the back-to-school customers,” Mr. Figler said.

For $19.99, Target sells backpacks with speakers built inside so students can plug in their MP3 or CD player to the backpack to hear music. The store is also selling for the first time IPacks, $59.99 bags that have internal docking stations for IPods, according to Kristi Arndt, a Target spokeswoman. The music controls are on the backpack strap.

Laptops are one of the biggest sellers among school shoppers, retailers say, although store officials could not give specific sales numbers.

And they say this is mainly because laptop prices have dropped sharply. Consumers can buy laptops anywhere from $500 to $800 with all the standard features, said Mr. Figler.

“Two years ago, you couldn’t find a laptop for under $1000,” he said.

Still, for Mrs. Paine, who recently bought another computer for her 14-year-old daughter, the cost adds up.

Internet security software and word-processor applications, considered almost essential for a student’s computer, are sometimes not included in a computer’s price and can add up to $200, said John Pescatore, a computer software analyst and vice president for Gartner Inc.

Despite the expense, Mrs. Paine sees the benefits of school supplies becoming more sophisticated.

“I think on one hand, it is a little bit of a strain,” she said. “On the other hand, research has really changed. Kids are being exposed to a broader level of education.”

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