"Most people are looking for something unique," said Larina Lin, founder of the site Coolpencilcase.com, which sells supplies imported from Japan.
The sum families will spend on supplies this year is up slightly over last year, according to the National Retail Federation, based on a poll of 6,178 U.S. consumers conducted in July.
The average family with kids in kindergarten through 12th will spend $669.28 on apparel, shoes, supplies and electronics, up 5 per cent from last year, according to the trade group's 2014 Back-to-School Survey.
Requests from teachers for classroom contributions is a possible factor in increased spending on supplies, according to the survey, which predicted a 12 per cent hike in such spending this summer over last — to an average of $101.18 from $90.49 in 2013.
Since 2009, the retail federation has been asking how the U.S. economy plays out in school supply shopping. While spending has loosened up slightly this year over last, more families are going for store brands or generic items for school — 34 per cent when compared to 32.8 per cent last year, the survey said. And 25.6 per cent hope to get along with last year's items, up from 23.7 per cent last year.
Nearly 20 per cent said they shop online more often to save money, up from 18.5 per cent last year and the highest percentage ever noted by the retail federation.
"Back-to-school is the second-largest sales driving season that we have as a company. It's second only to the holiday season. It's critically, critically important for Target," said Jenna Reck, a company spokeswoman.
Here's a look at what's cool for school:
PARTNERSHIPS AND LICENSED PRODUCTS
Staples and Teen Vogue have teamed up this year for a collection of notebooks, pencils, erasers and folders appealing to teen girls with florals, plaids and hearts. For younger boys, SpongeBob and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles remain hot among licensed characters, the latter about to get a boost with the August release of the latest "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movie, said Alison Corcoran, a senior vice-president at Staples.
"What we're seeing this year that's an evolution is this mixture of fun and fashion together," she said.
Target is committed to donating one school supply item to a student in need for every item purchased through Aug. 1 from the company's "up&up" brand, up to $25 million. The program was inspired by Yoobi.com, also available at Target, featuring funky new items using the same non-profit partner, the Kids in Need Foundation, to distribute supplies to needy kids on a one-bought, one-donated basis.
Lin and other sellers point to the enduring popularity of the wide-eyed owl on pencil cases and other supplies. Lin's site designed Hootie the Owl for vinyl cases with: "I will be by your side wherever you go." They come in blue, red and yellow with a mesh compartment, elastic bands for chunky highlighters or markers and a roomy main compartment.
"Owls are definitely back," agreed Reck. "They started in the baby space and then bled into homes and now for school."
The pink kind might still rule, but Lin offers a way to make your own erasers. She sells kits for creating them out of special clay that can be moulded like putty then dipped into boiling water for 10 minutes.
Each set includes a Kawaii-theme mould and 12 pieces of clay in bright green, yellow, red, blue and white. Head to YouTube for how-to videos and ideas for freehand designs. (Kawaii is a Japanese term for cute or unique.) Silicone moulds work with the material to broaden design options.
There's a backpack for every sports fan, TV or movie character enthusiast and fashionista, but one new company, MadPax, has broken out with spiky designs in an array of colours and themes. The company has added funky block and bubble textures to its signature spikes, which look sharp but are soft to the touch.
"We're seeing that lots of people are buying them," Corcoran said.
JanSports are plentiful with new colours and patterns. Kipling has a Seoul-inspired abstract print and recently added a monogram option online.
Mini-chandeliers and shag rugs were the rage a few years ago. On the functional front, LockerBones is in the mix as featured on ABC's "Shark Tank" earlier this year.
As a way to keep lockers from becoming dumping grounds, Mississippi inventor Greg Cronin came up with an adjustable system of interlocking shelving for his daughter. He brought in a partner, Stephen Coachys, to pitch the TV sharks and wound up with a deal at Staples.
The shelving fits standard lockers and comes in pink and blue plastic or natural wood. The two also sell off their website, LockerBones.com.
Follow Leanne Italie on Twitter at http://twitter.com/litalie