Backpacks: A new 'badge' of cool

Once just an accessory, backpacks have become a $2 billion business.

ByABC News
January 8, 2009, 1:16 AM

SAN LEANDRO, Calif. -- Back-to-school dreams are designed here, just south of Oakland.

The world's biggest backpack maker, JanSport, designs its megaline here. So does its oh-so-hip sister company, The North Face. The two make almost half of all small backpacks sold in the USA.

Backpacks are no longer just for lugging books and peanut butter sandwiches. Students also pack them with laptops, cellphones and iPods. They've evolved into techno-fashion statements that have to look hip, feel comfortable and hold an ever-evolving array of stuff.

Bagging the right backpack may have passed buying cool clothes as the most culturally crucial back-to-school ritual.

"A bag is a badge. It's a statement of how cool you are," says Alan Krantzler, marketing chief at luxury luggage maker Tumi, which is nurturing a new market with student-targeted backpacks.

Backpacks, which began emerging as an accessory for high school students in the 1980s, have become a $2 billion business with double-digit growth. And they're everywhere: 58% of consumers own backpacks, with 61% of the packs bought on impulse, according to a JanSport survey. About half of sales come in the back-to-school third quarter.

The simple, $15 packs with two zippered pockets are so 1990s. Backpacks now are high tech and high fashion. And high price: Some North Face packs now cost north of $100. Tumi last year offered an uber-cool $695 limited edition with a solar panel to charge iPods and cellphones.

"Backpacks have become command central," says Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist and research affiliate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "When you think about what's in them, they almost serve as mini-mobile homes."

Many students are as emotionally attached to their backpacks as to their favorite jeans or sneakers.

"It's as important to me as my skateboard," says Laura Jabczenski, a 14-year-old high school freshman from Tucson, who has turned her pack into a piece of art with detailed drawings on it.

Many students carry a day pack for school and also have a weekend or evening pack. "We change backpacks the way we change cosmetics," says trends spotter Marian Salzman, co-author of Next Now.