Christmas is about the spirit of giving. And you and your kids might not be in the best of spirits if you can't find the right gifts to give.
When the search for the hottest toys grows stone cold, holiday shopping can become a stressful experience filled with fruitless runs to every store in town. But by following these four steps, you'll be able to either secure the item you want, or come up with an alternative that will leave little ones smiling.
Step 1: Make Friends With Management
It pays to have friends in high places. To get the inside edge on the other shoppers, shopping expert Robyn Spizman recommends you make friends with a local toy store manager.
"Introduce yourself and ask them when the shelves get restocked," said Spizman. "The early birds always catch the toys they want. It also makes a lot of sense to get your name on a waiting list. They'll call you when the next shipment comes in."
This is especially important for kids who simply need to have that one action figure that's impossible to find. Toymakers intentionally limit certain figures, packing just a handful per case to ensure the popularity of the line and keep interest high. The only way to get these toys is to show up on a Tuesday morning and grab them fresh out of the box -- the rarest toys never even make it to the shelves.
It all else fails, a number of toy companies have a toll-free telephone number right on the box. "Call the number, put in your zip code, and you can see what stores in your area may still have some in stock," said Spizman.
Step 2: Turn to the Web
Because Internet retailers don't have shelf space, they're able to carry loads more inventory than conventional bricks-and-mortar names. And with so many retailers out there, from "we-carry-everything" names like
Wal-Mart.com to the toy-centric names like
eToys.com (yes, it is still in business), there are dozens of online nooks and crannies to explore.
Just make sure these online stores have the item in stock and can ship it to you in an appropriate amount of time. In the early days of online retail, many customers bought items weeks in advance, only to have them arrive after the holidays. It's less of a problem now, but it can crop up with hard-to-find items or at smaller online shops.
And when all else fails,
can be a great Plan B, especially for shoppers who are willing to pay any price to get that special item. "When we're looking for a video game, the very first thing we do is go online to eBay and look for it," said Matt Firme, editorial director of Future Network USA, publisher of the
Official Xbox Magazine
Playstation 2 Magazine
. "Stores just don't have the shelf space they need to carry everything they want to."
And chances are, you won't have to pay too much to get what you want.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
may be impossible to find in stores, but eBay users can snap up a sealed copy for just $45, not including shipping. Remember though, eBay doesn't always deliver. Read
Doing One's E-Bidding Safely to make sure you don't get scammed.
Step 3: Find the Overlooked Stores
For every super-sized Toys R Us mobbed with holiday shoppers, there's a mom-and-pop store with empty aisles and full shelves. Often times, these smaller guys are the perfect place to find a hidden cache of the hottest items while everyone is slugging it out at the mall. And because they want your business, the chance a friendly neighborhood manager will set aside what you want is even greater.
But finding these out-of-the-way retailers can be a chore. Thankfully, the Internet can make this task easy. A wide variety of sites allow you to search, but one of the easiest-to-use and most specific is
Switchboard.com. The site, which is essentially an electrified version of the Yellow Pages, not only enables users to search by geography but also by category, product lines and services offered.
"For example, the directory engine allows a user to quickly find computer dealers within 10 miles of home who offer installation and setup services and the Dell brand," said Elaine Haney, vice president of marketing for SwitchBoard.com.
Step 4: Give a Gift Card
When all else fails, give a gift card so kids can get what they want later. While some may cringe that such gifts are impersonal and gauche, a number of companies offer innovative new ways to personalize them.
One good example is the Bank of America Visa gift card, which works like a prepaid credit card and is accepted everywhere Visa is. With the card, users can choose from 40 different designs, stamp someone else's name on it, and even put a special message right on the card itself.
"You can put the kid's name right on it -- and kids love paying for things themselves," said Spizman. "You can even cut out a picture of the gift you're looking for and include it with the card, just so they can see what they're going out later to get."
Ultimately, Spizman says, shoppers who can't find what they're looking for should remember one final bit of advice: "You don't have to get them everything, you know."