DES MOINES, IOWA
Don't even think of telling Donavee Wicks to cover her schoolbooks with brown paper.
Her mother, Darla, made that mistake as they trolled an office-supply store here recently looking for the perfect book cover. When Mrs. Wicks asked why a grocery bag wouldn't do just as well, seventh-grader Donavee responded, "Your point would be?" before grabbing the new Nike-brand ones.
As Mrs. Wicks discovered again this year, back-to-school shopping can make a parent feel more haggard than Santa's most put-upon elves.
The lists of "required" supplies keep growing while children's tastes, it seems, get more fickle all the time. And then there's the disappointment late shoppers face if they find all the latest Sponge Bob folders and Powerpuff Girls notebooks sold out.
So at this strip of big-box stores in a suburban Des Moines neighborhood, families lined the aisles one night after work a full three weeks before the new school year starts.
Most have had their shopping lists for months. Many Des Moines schools send them home in the spring. Those who have lost theirs can grab shopping lists along with their carts. Both OfficeMax and WalMart conveniently place each area school's shopping list right near the store entrance.
Back to school shopping is big business at both chains. Parents will buy $2.3 billion in new school supplies this year and that doesn't even include electronics, clothes, and shoes.
Teachers at Madison Elementary School here in Des Moines contribute to that total by requiring parents to buy about a dozen separate items per child.
It's a mix of the traditional crayons and glue, paper, and rulers - plus more recent innovations that can leave parents baffled.
Disposable cameras for field trips. Boxes of Ziploc bags for arts and craft projects. Post-it notes for reading comprehension. There are also a few communal items everyone shares - such as tissues and computer paper - to help relieve cash-strapped districts.
What you won't find, says acting principal Marsha Kerper, are backpacks on wheels or gel pens (too distracting) and Trapper Keepers (too big for the desks).
Judging by the young crowds in Walmart, none of the required items is what excites kids.
Elementary students seek out their favorite cartoon characters: Scooby Doo and Spiderman, Powerpuff Girls and Barbie.
Middle-schoolers want neon-colored notebooks and accessories for their first lockers, such as cork boards and magnets.
Surprisingly, most kids say they actually enjoy this ritual that signals the start of a new school year. Sixth-grader Larry Tuon says "it's getting boring" at home.
Some parents intentionally leave their kids at home.
Take Marisol Prieto, who is shopping for first-, fourth- and sixth-graders. Her task isn't any easier though. Her sixth-grader wants only items emblazoned with a certain princess character - no neutral or red colors. "It's really difficult," she says.
Nationally, this year's hot school-supply items are high-tech backpacks, says Karen Burk, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman in Bentonville, Ark. Not ones that just carry books around - that's too old fashioned.
Bestsellers include "cool pack" backpacks with insulated pockets for drinks or the "live wire" that comes with built-in earphones and volume control so kids can listen to a stereo. "Our young customers are looking for something to show their individuality," Ms. Burk says.
At Martin Elementary School, teachers try to find ways of curbing that individuality so that school supplies don't become status symbols. Many teachers require every student to use the same color notebook, for example.
Generic brands also help parents keep costs down.
The average Midwestern family will spend about $75 on school supplies this fall. The Wicks family is sure to surpass that mark. Today's hunt for the perfect book cover is probably just the first of several shopping excursions, Wicks says, as she follows her daughter through OfficeMax with an air of resignation.
"They've got to keep up with everyone else," her mother explains.
Donavee has already bought an Adidas backpack and is now searching through the Nike book covers. She picks a pack of them ($3.99 for two) and two packages of stretched sheets of plastic dotted with bright red jalapeno peppers. ($2.49 for four).
After 20 minutes of browsing, Donavee has found the right covers. They add notebooks and pens and head to the register. They pay $46.83 and head straight across the street to Wal-Mart.