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Some hot ticket toys already cleaned out online

Developers for LeapFrog explain the lessons they learn when kids get a hold of the company's latest games and devices.

It happens every year. The special toy that every child wants for Christmas flies off store shelves and parents are left scrambling to find little Susie or Johnny that must-have item, sometimes resorting to eBay (or, more recently, pepper spray).

This year looks to be no different, if Black Friday numbers are any indication. Retail foot-traffic increased by 6.6 percent on the day after Thanksgiving according to the shopping data analysis firm ShopperTrak, a slight edge over the 5.1 percent increase in shopping traffic on Black Friday in 2010.

So what’s a parent to do when the must-have toy is out of stock online? Needham and Company senior analyst Sean McGowan advises parents to keep checking in with local stores about when a new shipment of the item will be arriving, and then show up that morning to buy.

He also suggests networking with other parents and making pacts to buy enough of the item for the entire group if one parent finds it online or in a store.

The Catch-22 with holiday toys, he said, is that “in order for [the toy] to be really big, there has to be enough in stock for it to sell. But if it’s available in mass quantities, there’s a perception that it’s not hot.”

So what will be this year’s the hot ticket toy? All signs indicate that the LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer, a tablet for kids with a built-in camera and video recorder, will be high on the list, McGowan said. Even at this early stage, “it’s the one thing you can’t find anywhere,” he said. “For $100, you wouldn’t think it would be sold out, but it is.”

Indeed, at the time this story was being written, the LeapPad Explorer appeared to be out of stock on the websites of Toys ‘R Us, Wal-Mart and Barnes and Noble.

The LeapPad Explorer also appeared to be unavailable for Internet purchase on Target and Kmart’s websites, though an in-store search for availability in the New York City area yielded a few store locations that had it in limited stock. Most, however, were sold out.

On Amazon.com, a number of sellers had evidently stocked up on the LeapPad Explorer only to hawk it for more than double the original retail value.

Another in-demand toy is the Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Doll by MGA Entertainment. An earlier model of the little pink doll was on the market last year, but it has been upgraded for 2011 with bendable pink curls that appear to be all the rage. For she, in all her wild-haired glory, is also out of stock online on Toys ‘R Us, Wal-Mart, Kmart and Target, and is marked up to $67 from around $30 on Amazon.com. 

Toys ‘R Us said that the Thanksgiving weekend also yielded big sales of the Trash Pack “Trashies” Garbage Truck by Moose Toys and the Animal Planet Air Swimmers eXtreme Radio Control Giant Flying Sharkand Clownfish, the latter of which does require the additional purchase of a helium tank. But both are still available online for purchase, as are hot sellers like Monster High dolls and Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure video games.

Company spokesperson Jen Albano said Toys ‘R Us will continue to receive daily deliveries of its top selling items throughout the season up until Christmas Eve.

At Kmart, in addition to the LeapPad Explorer and the V-tech Innotab Tablet, the Fijit Friends Interactive Toysare slated to be extremely popular this season, according to spokesperson Julia Fitzgerald. (Indeed, all three items are currently sold out at Kmart.com.) Regarding the tablets, she says, “If moms are thinking about them, I would start scouring and securing them now.” Same goes for the Fijit Friends. But what about Lalaloopsy, her crazy-haired compatriot? “You’re not going to see her in December,” said Fitzgerald.

For boys, Fitzgerald said Hot Wheels Wall Tracks, which uses 3M Command Strips to adhere racing tracks up walls, are already a big seller at Kmart, with the starter setcurrently unavailable for online purchase.

Overall, Fitzgerald said that innovative toys that feature some sort of upgrade from a popular classic are always big holiday sellers, even in the case of a more expensive item like the LeapPad Explorer. “It doesn’t matter what the price or the year is; innovation carries the day when it comes to toys,” she said.

Some parents have resorted to creative measures to find the most coveted toys of the season for their kids. Judy Greenfield, 36, a stay-at-home mother of three in Sanford, Fla., hits up Facebook to figure out where to buy hard-to-find toys. One of her friends was looking for Squinky toyslast year, for example, and Greenfield was able to advise her that she’d spotted them at CVS; Greenfield will post about what she's looking for so that her friends can return the favor. 

Last year, when Greenfield was searching for the ever-popular ZhuZhu Pets hamsters for her kids, she struck gold by visiting smaller versions of chain stores like Target and Walmart after finding that the larger stores were out of stock. This year, though, there’s no one item on her 4-year-old daughter’s list that she feels the need to strategize for. “I think due to the economy we are not going to see a cabbage patch/tickle me Elmo type of scenario,” she wrote in an email.

But Jenny Robertson, 39, a sales and account manager for a sign company and single mother based in Columbus, Ohio, was able to turn the holiday toy craze into a major money-making opportunity. Last Christmas, she had a hunch that the ZhuZhu Pets would be popular, and stocked up on 30 of them back in September. She ended up selling about 200 of them on eBay, along with around 75 Crayola Crayon Makers, for a tidy profit that paid for her family’s Christmas presents and a trip to Washington D.C. with her two children.

Her tricks of the trade? Befriend sales people at the big box stores, because they can tell you when the next shipment of toys is coming in. “They’re not beyond putting something back for you or tucking it behind a more common Fisher-Price toy and giving you the wink and the nod that it’s there,” Robertson said. She also discovered that the customer service counter was a great place to find returned items that parents didn’t know was a must-have, before they're returned to shelves. 

This year, however, she’s not doing any reselling on eBay, particularly since her 10-year-old daughter had to go without a coveted Zhu Zhu pet last year when Robertson ran out of stock. “My friends thought I was nuts,” she said. “We still laugh about the hamster Christmas.”

Circa 1956: From train sets to fluffy, stuffed poodles, TODAY's Dave Garroway and Helen O'Connell take a look at some of the popular toys of the decade.

Taryn Mohrman, lifestyle editor for Parents magazine, highlights the best toys of the year for your child, just in time for holiday shopping.