Getting ready to go back to school was always a little bit different for Luke Slattery.
While his classmates and their parents lined up outside Action Books in Melbourne east, he was in the store's back room busily bundling up boxes of pencils, protractors and exercise books.
"It would get to the final week of January and there would be a queue out the door and around the block of all the parents trying to get their kids ready," says Slattery, now 41, recalling the summers he spent as a teenager helping his parents at their school supplies store.
"One of my fondest memories was when they first bought the business, and mine and my brother's job was to stocktake all the pencils.
"We had to count them all by hand and I still remember those HB pencils."
Slattery's family sold the store in Ringwood 20 years ago, but as creative manager at the rapidly expanding stationery and gift chain Typo, he remains as consumed as ever by the back-to-school rush.
What has changed, however, is what's being sold: the bland, standard-issue equipment of yesteryear has made way for stationery that is colourful and creative.
And that's become a multimillion-dollar industry, which Australian retailers are taking to the world.
"For us it's been a really [good] opportunity to add fun to what 20 years ago was quite a bland product," says Slattery, who works with a team of about 30 designers, developers and product buyers to stay on top of the latest trends and styles.
"Primarily our customers are looking for fun and something that will brighten up their day, and that will speak to who they are as a person."
Global expansion progress
Along with pens shaped like hotdogs, Slattery says stylish lunch boxes and drink bottles will fly off the shelves this year and into the backpacks of increasingly health-conscious students who prefer sandwiches from home over tuckshop pies.
Typo opened its first store in Victoria in 2009 and now has 175 stores across 12 countries, with plans to open 20 bricks and mortar stores in the UK over the next 12 months. It already has four stores on the United States' west coast, plus one in Minnesota, and is eyeing further growth there too.
Targeted towards teenagers in their later years of high school, as well as university students and young professionals, Typo expects to sell globally 1.5 million units of back-to-school stationery and accessories in January.
The vertically-integrated chain is part of the Geelong-based Cotton On Group, which expects global sales of $1.51 billion this year across its Cotton On, Rubi, factorie, T Bar, Typo and Supré brands.
Meanwhile, Solomon Lew's even more colourful, tween-targeted stationary chain Smiggle is also making the most of the pencil case arms race, hitting sales of $132.6 million last financial year, at growth of 26 per cent.
Lew's Premier Investments hopes to have 200 stores in the UK within five years, generating $200 million in sales – all driven by children who get what they want.
"Children have actually become the key decisions maker," says Jim Berndelis, merchandise business manager at Officeworks, which has this year tailored its range of stationery to appeal to students from kindergarten right up to university.
"Whether selecting a school bag or a pencil case and pencils, that can be a form in itself of self-expression and a demonstration of their own personal style."
The back to school period is one of Officework's biggest trading events and saw record-breaking results in 2014 and 2015, helping it to sales growth of 8 per cent to $1.7 billion last financial year.
Speaking from experience, Officeworks managing director Mark Ward describes it as "a process parents have to endure, and sometimes enjoy", and one that takes a year for his company to prepare for.
"Preparation begins in February, so in four weeks time the buying team will already be planning for the year ahead," he explains.
Ward says technology is a growing part of back-to-school preparation, with children as young as eight now being given their own tablets and computers to use for school work.
Officeworks has rolled out a "tech selector" service that helps parents choose the right computer for their children's studies, along with a school list service that pre-packs the required equipment and sends a text to parents when it's ready. It has even launched a "brain workout app" that uses games to limber up children's minds ahead of the new school year.
But for all the bright notepads, personalised pencil sharpeners and tablet computers, Berndelis says that some things haven't changed.
Officeworks' biggest sellers this year, he expects, will be a scrapbook and the humble glue stick.