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You see them every year – “hot toy” lists, purporting to offer special insight for confused parents, grandmas, and others as to what toys kids will be wishing for this year.
But do these lists really represent what kids really want, or are stores merely manipulating adults into blindly buying what they choose to stock? Take the time to study lists from a few of our nation’s largest toy merchants and the answer becomes apparent.
The truth about “hot toys” lists
The first thing I noticed about this year’s lists is how little they had in common, which seemed odd considering these lists supposedly represent the season’s most-wanted toys. But that wasn’t all that seemed odd after I analyzed the 2012 “hot toys” lists released by Toys R Us, Kmart, Target, and Walmart…
- While all four stores say their list represents “hot” or “top” toys, none explains how they decided which toys to list. Did they poll children? Consult industry experts? Who knows – the closest we get to an explanation is Toys R Us’ vague statement that their list is “the result of the company’s yearlong search across the globe to identify items that are sure to top kids’ wish lists.”
- The best time to shop for toys starts after Black Friday in late November, but all four stores released their lists between mid-September and mid-October. This phenomenon, called holiday creep, is its own retail trick: By lengthening the holiday toy-shopping season, stores encourage more toy sales in total – and more toy sales early in the season, when they’re more expensive.
- Only one toy – Furby – appears on all four stores’ lists. If they all represent the hottest toys, shouldn’t there be more overlap?
- The Tabeo, Toys R Us’ own learning tablet, is one of more than 20 toys that appear on only one list. In fact, 60 percent of the toys on Toys R Us’ list appear only on their list. With the big-box stores, 30 to 47 percent of the toys on each store’s list appear only on that list. Again, you’d think there’d be more overlap.
- The Tabeo, sold exclusively by Toys R Us, is one of a dozen listed toys sold exclusively by one store. But how could a toy – let alone a dozen toys – sold by only one store make a most-wanted list? I can only think of one product to pull that off: It’s called the iPhone.
- Monster High doll products appear on three stores’ lists. But while Walmart lists the Monster High High School Playset, Kmart lists specifically the Monster High Skultimate Roller Maze gift set, and Target specifically the Monster High Scary Tales Doll. Could this be because the Roll Maze is exclusive to Kmart, and the Scary Tales Doll to Target?
- The 2012 Holiday Barbie products appear on Kmart’s and Walmart’s lists, but Kmart specifically lists the brunette version. Can you guess which store sells the brunette exclusively?
- Time to Play magazine, written by and for toy industry pros, published its own hot toys list. Each toy on the list includes their rating (zero to five stars) for fun, repeat use, and assembly and instructions. And they explain how they picked the toys: “Time to Play’s Holiday 2012 Most Wanted Toys List represents the toys our editorial team thinks will be the most popular, most fun — and Most Wanted this holiday season. Over the past year, we’ve looked at and reviewed literally thousands of toys, and the ones you see here are the best of the best — the ones everyone will be talking about in the following weeks.”
- Time to Play lists more than 30 toys, yet more than half of them (mostly the cheaper ones) don’t appear on any of the stores’ lists.
The bottom line? “Hot toy” lists are just one more illustration of how understanding retail tricks can save you money.
The truth about toy prices
Once you know to ignore retail tricks like “hot toys” lists, saving on toys comes down to the same basics we often cite…
- Comparison shop. And don’t stop after you’ve compared the prices at the four stores mentioned above. Compare their prices to those of wholesale clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club, and sites like Amazon.com and Buy.com. Lastly, to be certain you found the lowest price, enter a toy into the search engines of price-comparison websites like PriceGrabber, Bizrate, or Nextag.
- Check the return policy. To avoid sticking a loved one (or yourself) with an unwanted toy, read store return policies before buying. Check out Best and Worst Return Policies for help interpreting policies.
- Pay with discounted gift cards. Check out the Best Sites for Buying Discounted Gift Cards to take advantage of this often-overlooked money-saver.
- Pay with a rewards or cash-back credit card. That is, if you pay off your balance monthly.
- Check for coupons and promo codes. If you shop online, search your favorite aggregator and Google for [toy name] + “coupon” or “promo code” before paying.
- Avoid shipping costs. Look for free-shipping promo codes, which many stores offer if you spend a certain amount, or search for codes at FreeShipping.org. Alternatively, some stores offer a free ship-to-store option, which ships your purchase to your local store for pick-up.
- Get a rebate. Rebate websites essentially pay you to shop.
- Think ahead. If you wait till the last minute, you can’t take advantage of savings opportunities like paying with discount gift cards and avoiding shipping costs.
- Think old-school. The most tried-and-true toys of the past century are also some of the cheapest.
Karla Bowsher covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at email@example.com.