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What are the cool kids wearing?

Back-to-school shopping for the truly well-equipped child means keeping up with light-speed fashion trends to protect your child from being banished to geekdom by playground fashionistas. By John W. Schoen.
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It used to be that back-to-school shopping for the single-digit-aged crowd meant a new lunchbox, a box of sharp pencils and a three-ringed notebook with enough lined paper to get through Halloween. No more. Today, back-to-school shopping for the truly well-equipped child means keeping up with light-speed fashion trends to protect your child from being banished to geekdom by playground fashionistas.

So if you haven’t headed off to the mall yet, stick to basics: socks, underwear, generic school supplies. Because no matter what style of clothes you and your child can agree on, you’ll likely be back at the mall in a few weeks anyway, according to Marshal Cohen, a retail industry analyst who tracks back-to-school trends for NPD Group, a market information service.

“When school starts, you have to have your power outfits your first day,” he said. “That’s when kids see the right style and the right brand. And if you’ve bought the wrong one before school starts, it’s going to sit in the closet.”

A closet full of jeans that are “so last year” can get expensive. The National Retail Federation, a trade group, forecasts spending on this year’s back-to-school season to reach about $14.1 billion — 2 percent higher than last year but still down 16 percent from the year before. On average, parents plan to spend about $450, according to the NRF. That breaks down to $206.24 on clothing, $84.44 on shoes, $74.04 on school supplies and $86.03 on electronics and computer-related items.

(You may be one of the lucky parents able to splurge thanks to the Bush tax cuts. Checks of up to $400 recently went out to qualifying parents as an advance on some $13 billion in expanded child-care tax credits for 2003.)

Keeping up with the cool kids is pretty tough these days without a trip to the electronics store, but it’s also pretty expensive. Among the hottest toys this year is the new generation of cellphones equipped with digital cameras, which let kids take embarrassing pictures of friends and distribute them at the speed of light to the entire class. For the youngest early adopters, there’s the $20 “laser lock” — in red, blue, black and silver — which lets you zap your backpack open or closed with a keyless gizmo like the one Mom uses to unlock the family SUV.

But with the economy still rocky, last year’s fascination with electronic gizmos like portable CD and MP3 players has apparently cooled off. Parents report they’re going to go easy on electronics and stick to basics this year, according to NPD. (Sorry kids, that means you’ll just have to make do with last year’s PDA.)

With electronics cooling off, clothing this year is big — literally.

“A lot of urban influence has gone suburban,” said Cohen. “It’s not as edgy and radical, but it’s big and baggy and bold.”

Apparel retailers are also hoping to tap the grade-school school zeitgeist with styles like satin cargo pants and more corduroy. As always, pricey footwear continues to rule. So does oversized foot gear called the overshoe, which replaces what used to be called galoshes.

“Every one of the major brands has an overshoe,” said Cohen. “You look at your kid and wonder, ‘How did you ever get that thing on your foot?’ ”

For younger kids, the most angst is usually reserved for choosing the right movie icon to adorn a lunch pail, book cover or backpack. But kids may be wasting their time: These days, most Hollywood-licensed products are out of fashion faster than you can say “Finding Nemo.”

“With movies turning quickly as they do, the properties don’t get enough time any more to make an impact as they used to,” said Cohen. So expect your younger child to rebel against that hand-me-down Britney Spears pencil holder. And plan on more than one shopping trip after school starts. For one thing, you’ll probably get better deals on later trips because retailers are expected to start discounting early this year.

And if, after you’ve spent your budget and your kids are still feeling out of step, let them pick up the tab for repeat mall trips. Allowances are getting bigger, say retail analysts, and kids are spending more and more of their own money at younger ages.