For back-to-school shoppers, a new alphabet reigns, and it starts with E for electronics.
With camera cell phones and the Apple iPod music player topping student wish lists, some of the hottest gadgets have little to do with pen or paper, much less studying.
Altogether, electronics are expected to account for about a quarter of the estimated $40 billion that U.S. parents and students will spend on back-to-school items this season, according to the National Retail Federation. That is more than textbooks, clothing, shoes, and any other category.
Just consider Claudine Bula Marasigan, a junior at the University of San Francisco. In the last three weeks, she spent about $4,000 on electronics, including $760 for a digital camera and printer, $1,600 on a new computer, and hundreds more on an external hard drive, DVD player, small portable TV and other gear making the $630 she spent on textbooks look like a bargain.
And the 25-year-old wasn't even done she returned last week with her parents to the Best Buy store in San Carlos to get printer cartridges, a surge protector, and a stylish polka dot-patterned wrist rest for her computer keyboard.
"It's really expensive to send a child to school nowadays," said her father, Bill Marasigan, shaking his head under the retailer's bright lights.
Portable laptop computers are increasingly becoming a student staple, especially for the college-bound. Sales this season are up about 30 percent from last year, according to the NPD Group market research firm.
Any models with built-in Wi-Fi are grabbing sales, analysts say, but some of the most popular include the Dell Inspiron 700M, the Apple iBook, and the Averatec C3500 Convertible, which combines a laptop and tablet PC with a display that swivels and folds down so notes can be scribbled directly onto the screen like an old-fashioned notepad.
More than anything, students are clamoring for things that will enhance their lifestyle, if not their grades.
MP3 music players edged out cell phones to lead the list of items students wanted before returning to school on a recent online survey of 300 junior high and high school students by research firm InsightExpress.
The portable player everyone seems to want is Apple Computer Inc.'s top-selling iPod. Retailers say they cannot keep enough in stock to meet demand.
"The iPod phenomenon makes up the huge majority in that category," said Stephen Baker, an analyst at NPD, which tracks retail store sales. "People used to bring 6-foot-high speakers to their dorm rooms, but now all their music just fits in their back pocket."
And though cell phones are already popular, students are upgrading to newer camera-equipped models with sharper color screens and loads of other features that are being heavily promoted by wireless carriers.
Max Butin of Santa Clara, Calif., a third-year student at Foothill College, hopes to replace his current cell phone with the hot new Motorola V710, which features a 1.2-megapixel camera, Bluetooth wireless technology, video capture and playback and an MP3 player.
Butin, who already has a Bluetooth-equipped Tungsten T3 handheld computer from palmOne Inc., said he'd like his new cell phone to support the same wireless technology so he could easily transfer photos and other data between the two gadgets.
Other multifunctional communications devices drawing the back-to-school crowd include Danger Inc.'s Sidekick, which combines a phone with e-mail, instant messaging, Web-surfing, a digital camera, a personal organizer and games, said Tim Bajarin, principal analyst at Creative Strategies Inc.
"With stars like Jennifer Aniston carrying one, it's got the hip factor," Bajarin said.
In all, college- and school-bound students and their parents will spend $10.6 billion on electronics as they head back to campuses this year, estimates the National Retail Federation.
"Prices are coming down," said Scott Krugman, a spokesman for the federation.
Still, some parents, like Doug Hatheway of Redwood City, have drawn a clear line between niceties and necessities.
"My son said he wanted a Palm Pilot. He said it'd help him take notes in class, but I told him I wouldn't buy it the argument or the product," said Hatheway, a real estate investor who owns a Palm handheld himself. "I told him I'd buy him a pack of No. 2 pencils because that's what I used to use."
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