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.
She skateboards to school with her $150, ultra-personalized Skullcandy Link Street Pack — controlling her iPod appl and cellphone via buttons on the straps. She can operate and listen to both without taking them out of her pack because the straps also have tiny speakers sewn in. "My pack," she says, "is something that defines me."
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.
JanSport says about half the backpacks sold are black. But this season, flashy prints and off-the-wall designs have found their way into the mainstream, including JanSport's $35 SuperBreak Chocolate Chip Bubbles pack. It's brown with turquoise bubbles and has been ordered heavily by retailers who already see it as a top seller. Another pack getting buzz this season is the $109 Surge from North Face, which is neon yellow-green.
It's technology, however, that's pushing the design envelope to almost reinvent packs.
"We've moved from the Flintstone era of backpacks to the Jetson era in just a few years," says Mark Treger, marketing chief at Goodhope, maker of G-Tech bags, which sells a $90 pack dubbed The Techno that lets owners control iPods from a five-button panel on a strap.
For many students, a backpack is about more than what they have — it's about who they are.
Jill Lin, a senior at the University of California, Irvine, recently went into the campus bookstore and spent $84 for a Mobile Edge Milano bag that has special pockets for her iPod, laptop and cellphone. It also has a faux crocodile skin — and a small, pink ribbon that shows her support for breast cancer victims.
"It's a fashion statement," she says. "I want it to be practical, but I want it to express myself."
Nike's new $200 Considered canvas and rubber pack is marketed as being made in an eco-sensitive manner. Nike's onto something — its pack sales are up 22% this year, spokesman Dean Stoyer says.
Super school sales
No pack maker owns back-to-school as JanSport does. The company won't specify how much business it does this time of year, but it's "a burdensome spike," says Ann Daw, the marketing chief. She'd prefer balanced sales year-round.
"We sell more packs in a week than most companies sell in a year," boasts co-founder Skip Yowell. JanSport has sold 25 million of its best-selling SuperBreak pack since 1979.
At the front of JanSport's design department sits the "Inspiration Board." On it, designers have pinned products, samples and what-nots picked up in world travels. A polka-dot swim suit from Japan. A funky T-shirt with a tree shaped like a guitar from Europe. A pair of flashy flip-flops from Asia.
Pack designs can come from anywhere. A cloth furniture sample brought back from Europe last year by R&D director Paula Kosmatka was turned by graphic designer Mariah Peters into 2007's hit: the brown bag with turquoise bubbles.
"It will follow me to my grave," jokes Peters.
Image is everything. Perhaps no one knows that better than North Face designers. North Face designs student backpacks as hiking packs, not just book bags.
"Our stuff says, 'Hey, I'm in touch with the great outdoors,' " says Robert Fry, product manager.
But students tend to twist those outdoorsy designs to their own uses. The compression straps dangling from the bottom — once meant for sleeping bags or pads — are used by a few students to cart yoga pads around campus, says Wade Woodfill, product director.
Lots of gimmickry is used to sell backpacks. But above all, students now want techy tweaks to their packs. A private place to put the iPod. A pocket for the cellphone. A padded spot for the laptop.
"Students try on backpacks like they're trying on clothes," says Bill Gargano, program coordinator at the Florida State University Computer Store.
Hot and happening
Here's what's hot in backpacks:
•iPod holders. Most packs now have them. Many also have portals that ear buds can fit through so students can use their iPods while wearing their packs.
•Cellphone pockets. Manufacturers have had to shrink the size of these pockets as cellphones have shrunk. Some companies, including North Face and Tumi, are placing cellphone holders on a strap for easy access.
•Padded sleeves for laptops. Students want better protection for their laptops. "If you dropped a backpack on the ground in the past, there was just a book inside," says Alex Parra, buyer for the University of Utah student bookstore. "Now it needs to protect your laptop."
•Techno tricks. Want to answer your cellphone while listening to your iPod, without opening your backpack? Skullcandy's Link packs let folks do that by touching a button on the strap. Other buttons on the strap can control iPods.
•Beverage berths. Originally designed for athletes and outdoor enthusiasts, bags with built-in "hydration bladders" or attachments for sports bottles are becoming more common. JanSport introduced its $50 Big Squirt this season with a straw-like tube that'll screw onto anything from small-mouth water bottles to wide-mouth sports drink bottles.
•Packs for women. North Face's idea of a woman's pack used to be to make it pink. Now it has the $69 Isabella pack designed to fit the narrower shoulders and waist and wider hips of a woman's torso.
•Air cushioning. Nike is putting the same air technology used in its sneakers into backpack straps. The straps of several of its Edge Elite packs have air-filled chambers to make them more comfortable. Price: up to $90.
•Artsy looks. JanSport has figured out how to get its bags into trendy Urban Outfitters urbn stores: Hire street artists to design them. Its Artist series targets teens with cool illustrations etched into limited edition bags. Price: $45.
•Eco-friendly packs. A Juice Bag, priced at up to $300, is made from recycled soda bottles and has a solar panel to charge cellphones and iPods. "We give students the power to stay connected while they roam," says Henry Gentenaar of bag maker Reware.
•Packs with wheels. They're big among schoolchildren ages 7 to 10, says Pam Jones, senior pack developer at L.L. Bean. But beware: Some schools ban them for fear of damage to floors. The wheel systems can save on lifting, but they add weight to the packs.
•"Full disclosure" packs. For security reasons, some schools require see-through bags such as JanSport's $35 Mesh Pack to show what students are packing.
•The messenger look. These shoulder bags with fold-over flaps are big among some fashion worshipers. Tumi's hot-seller is its $175 messenger. Timbuk2 sells a $95, blank canvas messenger for artsy students to customize.
•Personalized bags. L.L. Bean has sold packs personalized with embroidered lettering for more than a decade. Its advertising used to show packs with kids' names on them, but examples now show only monogrammed initials. It still will embroider a name if a buyer wants it, but it stopped promoting the idea two years ago because of safety concerns about revealing kids' names to strangers.
Perhaps a better way to personalize a pack is to do what Laura Jabczenski did with her Skullcandy bag: fill the white space with flowers, peace signs and doodles.
"Friends know me from behind, before they even see my face, " she says. "That's a good thing, right?"