We're just easing into August, but back-to-school shopping season is in full gear. So take this pop quiz to see if you are in the know.
a. Stock up on summer clearance-sale staples;
b. Equip your kids with the latest sneakers;
c. Spend more this year over last; or
d. All of the above?
If you went with "d," head to the front of the class: You get a gold star.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for consumer market research firm NPD Group, says now that the Millennial generation is in the parent zone, moms and dads are becoming more and more comfortable making online purchases. But, it's the kids, too, who are more engaged in the shopping process this year -- and parents are letting them have a greater influence on what goes in the cart.
Also, Cohen says, although back-to-school shopping is starting later this year, spending is up a bit, especially online.
"In the last few years, parents were sticking with the required items -- the supplies and maybe a few essentials," Cohen says. "But this year, there's more of a focus on fashion, with parents giving kids what they want and more of an opportunity to buy the latest fashion trends."
Before you head to the store or log on to buy online, here's your cheat sheet to what to buy now and what to wait to pick up later. And, yes, you will be graded on this.
What to buy now
Shoes. Footwear is the leading growth category in back-to-school purchases, NPD finds. "Athletic footwear is the leading driver, but the boot and spring boot business are doing really, really well," Cohen says, noting neon and bright color combinations are trendy, with brands like Nike, Adidas and Converse remaining popular.
Deborah Podberesky, Old Navy's executive vice president and general manager, says the "it" shoe for boys will be the high-top sneaker, and "for girls, we're updating our ballet flats with animal prints and hints of shine this season."
As for high school girls, Gregg Andrews, creative fashion director for Nordstrom, says a great pair of booties will go with everything from jeans to skirts and dresses. "Look for styles with biker-inspired buckles, Americana fringe and embroidery or military lace-up details," he says. "Antique finishes and distressed leathers look very cool for school."
Backpacks. With all the new gadgets and gear kids carry to school -- laptops, tablets, phones, etc. -- it makes sense that backpacks are becoming more utilitarian. "Kids' backpacks are getting more sophisticated with features and durability," Cohen says, adding that they're getting more comfortable, as well.
For fashion-forward teens, Nordstrom's Andrews says a small cross-body bag is essential for back-to-school, as are cases for her phone and tablet "that express her individuality."
Basics on sale. As they head back to schools that are often sweltering in August, students will want to be comfortable, so T-shirts and shorts are staples. Now is the time to find these basics on clearance at department stores, discount retailers and online.
What to buy later
Avoid paying full price and risking purchasing items your kids will rarely wear because they're not the "right" clothes, by picking up these items farther into the school year.
Jackets and coats. When many of today's parents were kids, a jacket or even a winter coat was part of the back-to-school haul your mom would bring home. There's no reason to carry on that tradition. You won't likely need that outerwear for a few months anyway, so wait for fall sales and to see what style your child really wants. "Kids want to wear what their friends are wearing," Cohen says.
Jeans. Even if your child is lucky enough to attend a school with central air conditioning, recess can be blazing in those early months back at school. So, save the jeans for later. When you're ready to buy, note that colored denim is still extremely popular for girls of all ages, while teen girls are still into skinnies, Nordstrom's Andrews says.
Sweaters. Crews, hoodies, cardigans, V-necks. Sweaters are wardrobe staples for students of all ages. Just hold off on buying them until the weather gets cooler. When you're ready to shop, look for bright colors, fun graphics and embellishments to let your little ones show off a little style.
Trends for back to school
Young boys and girls: "Denim is the number one thing that should be on your back-to-school list," says Deborah Podberesky, Old Navy's executive vice president and general manager. "Both girls and boys can update their collection whether it's in color, black denim or traditional blue denim in a variety of fits. For girls, the jegging is a strong new trend, combining the versatility of jeans with the comfort of leggings."
School uniforms: "The news in uniforms is the skinny fit pant," Podberesky says. "Skinny has been trending in denim for years and is now making the school uniform more current."
Teen girls: "She loves to create her own unique look by mixing pieces in an eclectic and unexpected way," says Gregg Andrews, creative fashion director for Nordstrom. "Iconic looks from the ‘80s, like punk and grunge, are the inspiration for her must-have pieces, but she will put them together in a totally modern way."
Teen boys: "It's still all about jeans, T-shirts and knit tops," says Marshal Cohen of the consumer market research group NPD. "Athletic base layers from brands like Under Armor and Nike Pro are popular.
Some guys are wearing it as part of their streetwear look and some are wearing it because they want to feel and look like a pro athlete."