When it comes to kids' lunch boxes, the sad truth (at least for the family member whose name is on the Visa card) is that last year's model just won't do.

"Awwwww Mom, are you kidding?" goes the refrain when it is suggested the child might return to school with the same Popples lunch box that was used last year."Kids are growing up a lot faster," says Joe Elcan, marketing director for Aladdin Industries, a Nashville, Tenn., company that makes plastic lunch boxes. "They outgrow a character or a toy faster than they used to. These days Sesame Street and Donald Duck (lunch boxes) are only for the preschoolers."

The kids' lunch-box market used to focus on children 5 to 10 years old. Now the market is younger. In just four years the typical lunch-box customer has fallen between the ages of 3 and 8, says Elcan. The reason for the shift is that more younger children are in day care and need something to carry their lunches in, he says. Another reason is the average 10-year-old wouldn't be caught dead carrying an ALF lunch box. It's just not "cool."

About 9 million lunch boxes are sold in the United States every year, Elcan says. "That means a majority of young kids get one a year - at least."

That also means a majority of parents of kids ages 3 to 8 will be heading out to toy emporiums to contemplate the selection of Rambo, GI Joe, Barbie, My Little Pony, ALF and Mickey Mouse lunch boxes. To little kids, lunch-box motif means much more than just a simple design; to some it's a matter of their very identity.

"Kids are terribly fashion-conscious. Blame it on the media and communication," says Elcan. "Also, used to be, children stayed home. They could wear hand-me-downs. Who cared? Now in some preschool settings they've got 40 to 50 peers. They see another kid with a certain type of shoes, for example, and suddenly they want shoes just like that."

Keeping ahead of nursery school fads is like going to Reno, says Elcan: "We have an 18-month lead time. It's a big gamble to try and predict what kids are going to like in 18 months."

Many lunch-box motifs are based on Saturday morning TV shows. "A lot of our licenses are a combo of a toy and syndicated TV show," says Elcan. "There's not only a Transformer toy, but there's a Transformer TV show, which is, in my opinion, a very, very good market. And children watch a lot of TV. They watch a lot more TV than they used to."

It's not just kids who are causing rumbling in the lunch-box market; it's also their baby boomer parents.

Without mentioning the "Y-word" Susan Biggs, president of Horizons Designs, a company that makes what it calls a "soft pack," a nylon fabric lunch box sold in upscale kids' specialty stores for $12 to $15, says, "We're selling to people who want something different from what everyone else has for their kids."

The parent who wants something different and is willing to pay $15 for it is, these days, usually a working mother. "They have more expendable dollars," says Biggs. "Whether they admit it or not, they feel more guilty. The more you work, the more you tend to spend money on kids.

"I worked all the time my daughter was growing up," says Biggs. "So I understand it."