Equipment - For Skating
You will find a huge amount of literature and sales talk about skating skis--even for beginners. This is primarily due to skating's emphasis on speed and performance...something that is easy to convert into slick sales pitches. However, a beginner that is just getting a handle on their technique should stick to a goal of getting good (not necessarily awesome) skate equipment. You'll have perfectly good skis and you won't have to stay up at night reading technical reports.
For beginners, skate skis are quite good across the brands and pretty easy to select. You will hear a ton about "ski flex" but for a beginner, just knowing that you'd like a "medium flex" for versatility is usually enough. Length nowadays can be confusing with a wealth of mid-length and short skis available. These skis were introduced to increase control and stability (which is great) but they can also compromise versatility in soft and fresh snow. Just what length is best for you depends entirely on what kind of snow you are on most of the time. If you do go with a "shorter than normal" ski, please make sure you try out a specific length before you buy!
What to look for: It seems every store has a different method of choosing skate ski length these days. General rule of thumb: take 10 cm off the length of a classic ski for skate length--that'll be close. If a business has sophisticated flex and/or pressure testing devices they will really be able to pin-point the exact characteristics of a ski in terms of flex and pressure. This can be useful even for a beginner in getting a ski that is just right for your size and ability. Please be careful when choosing short skate skis. Aim for a medium flex for your size.
The real key in choosing beginner Skating poles is to get only what you need. Performance poles can cost over $250US but these are a horrible choice for off-track fooling around. Remember, you use poles for power in XC skiing so if the pole bends like a twig at the slightest touch you may want to invest in a wee bit stiffer option. Let a salesperson know where you are likely to ski and your ability. For general cruising all the way up to citizen racing most of the cheaper poles will work fine.
What to look for: Skate poles should come up to the cleft of your chin while standing (in shoes or ski boots) on a floor. Claims that longer poles aid power are false--particularly for beginners. You can clear up a dozen technical problems just by having a properly sized set of poles.
A boot designed for Skating will have a number of fancy features to stabilize both foot and ankle as well as increase the responsiveness of the "push off" phase. Stiffness is also a big issue with skate boots since you want the boot to flex only enough to aggressively drive the ski. These features are great additions but they never will replace getting superior technical guidance and going out and working on your technique!!! (No matter what the salesperson tells you :-)
What to look for: Size the boot just like a running shoe and always try on a boot wearing the same kind of sock that you'll wear when skiing. Some beginners find the high-end Skate boots too restrictive (and pricey) in which case lower-end Skate or Combi boots might be a better choice.
Classic boots generally are too flexible and cut too low to give a skier a real nice "bite" during the push-off and good support during the glide phase. Try to demo or rent specific brands of boots and go skiing before buying if at all possible. You really can't go wrong at the top end of scale across the brands but some of the lower models do have their drawbacks.
Bonus Tip: You really should have your bindings mounted by a professional. You can do the job yourself, but unless you have had instruction from a professional and you happen to have all the right tolls handy--it can develop into a disaster in a hurry.
Because plenty of folks love to use both the Classic and Skate Techniques, several companies have developed "Combi" lines for boots and skis. The boots come, naturally, halfway between a Classic and Skate boot with cuff height and stiffness. The skis also try to come mid-way with flex and camber design. These are great options for the one-purchase skier that doesn't mind a waxable Classic ski. Keep in mind, one of the compromises in Combi skis is that you must clean the kick wax off your skis before you'll be able to skate on them.