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SIMBA REIGNS AS KING FOR MANY KIDS SEEKING BACK-TO-SCHOOL GOODS

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Carol Evans and her two offspring, Jennifer, 6, and Martin, 8, intently surveyed the back-to-school department in a suburban store. Checklist in hand, they scanned each aisle for back-to-school goods that were not only functional but fashionable.

Jennifer faced a choice: Go for the Simba lunchbox or the cool orchid-and-fuchsia insulated lunch-box?The emotional tug of Disney's "Lion King" won out.

"I love Simba," she declared, face upturned, eyes alight with affection.

For Martin, the choices were easier. Anything related to X-Men or Mighty Morphin Power Rangers got his vote.

So it goes as children stock up on back-to-school essentials.

The priority for many students: Grab anything with some type of character on it, said Krista Stockhausen, a manager for Venture Stores.

"By that I mean Lion King, Power Ranger, even Flintstones to some degree," Stockhausen said. "And then if kids are too old for that kind of merchandise, they're going for the pro sports branded stuff."

Other items moving well include backpacks; a portable locker worn like a backpack that has a special area for shoes; and weird, battery-operated pens that squiggle.

Scissors, glue and erasers are selling well, too. But then, you'd expect that. Stores prominently display copies of the lists of supplies required by different schools.

To accommodate early shoppers, some stores now set up back-to-school displays in June or early July.

"Kids, like adults, want to keep up with the Joneses, and people have learned if they wait, they end up with disappointed kids," Stock-hausen said.

Bob Arfsten at a Dime Store in Brookside, Kan., agreed.

"Last year, the rage was a notebook that zips all the way around, and it was a rather expensive item at $15," Arfsten said. "It was certainly upscale and a must-have item and sometimes hard to find."

Arfsten said the Dime Store steers from items branded with the character du jour. But anything with a Nike logo is hot, hot, hot.

Keeping up with what children want is a real challenge, said Robbie Bovermann, a product manager for Igloo Products Corp. in Houston.

Igloo offers about 11 different kinds of lunch containers for the back-to-school market, a relatively new one for the privately owned company.

This year marks the first full year that the Kool Kit will be on the shelves. It's a fully insulated lunchbox with a separate container for sandwiches and a compartment for keys, money or a candy bar. Also included in the kit is a thermos with a flip-top. And there's even a special spot for a yellow Post-it note from Mom or Dad.

"We offer most of our product line in primary colors for the really young kids," Bovermann said. "And then for the older grade-schoolers we offer the orchid-and-fuchsia color combination that girls like and then a metallic one that both boys and girls like."

Whether it's a Simba lunchbox or a Nike notebook, the goal for most parents is to make sure their children go to school that first day feeling confident they're going to fit in.

"I think kids develop more individuality as they get older," Carol Evans said. "But at certain ages, it's very important they don't stick out - conforming is the name of the game."