10 years later, a new ticklish Elmo tops the 'hot toy' list
Online auction 'resellers' will do the shopping for you – for a price.
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Yes, Elmo is hot, and parents may elbow one another for it, but is it worth the trouble?Skip to next paragraph
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"Just because it's a hot toy, it doesn't mean it's for your child," says Stephanie Oppenheim of independent reviewer Toy Portfolio, which publishes a yearly guide.
Ms. Oppenheim and her mother, Joanne, were partly responsible for the success of the original Tickle Me Elmo, a sleeper hit they endorsed. "We loved the original Elmo. It was a soft huggable doll."
The Oppenheims don't like the new Elmo. Its body is hard beneath the fur, so the monster doesn't have the "huggability" of its predecessor. And it's not just that, Oppenheim says. Children need to be at the heart of the playing experience, not the other way around.
"Elmo does all the playing, and the child just watches," Oppenheim says.
Toy industry analyst Rice admits that the new Elmo probably isn't plush enough for a child to take to bed. Still, she likes the toy for its engineering feats, adding that it engenders interaction between children and adults as they go bananas watching it.
Fun or not, Elmo is laughing all the way to the bank, cashing in not only for its designers, but the industry overall. Toys are a $22 billion empire, according to research firm NPD Group, but the industry hasn't had a "hot toy" in years, while video game makers have chipped away at traditional toymakers' share. For now, Elmo's giggly self is leading a rebirth of sorts, creating buzz and bringing shoppers back into toy stores. NPD estimates that shoppers looking for gifts will spend on average $157 on toys this holiday season, $16 more than they did in 2005.
Smith probably won't be one of the big spenders. Her children aren't getting Elmos this Christmas – "they haven't been that good," she jokes, then continued, "Why would I get my 2-year-old a $100 toy? It's just another toy she'll throw in the heap."
What are the kids getting, then? "Some used stuff from Goodwill," she replies. Smith believes one needn't spend a lot of money to give kids a great play experience.
And here's a tip from toy-reseller Smith. She predicts that the next hot toy on eBay could be Mumble the Penguin from Build-a-Bear. The cartoon character from the hit movie "Happy Feet" is bound to be a star with the kids, she says.
If you have given up on finding Elmo or aren't interested in it, many, many more toy options are available. Here is some toy-buying advice from several reviewers and industry analysts:
• "Understand that hot toy lists are just guidelines," says Chris Byrne, who calls himself the "Toy Guy," and is also a contributing editor at Toy Wishes magazine. Buy things consistent with your values, he says, and don't forget that the success of the market begins or ends with your pocketbook.
• Get to know your child's interests before you set out on your search, says Reyne Rice, a toy trend specialist for the Toy Industry Association. See what they play with and what they enjoy doing. Then, do some research on the Internet to figure out what toys would match those interests. Otherwise, Ms. Rice adds, you will be overwhelmed once in the store. (Shopkeepers at independent, nonchain toy stores tend to be good at helping customers make toy choices. They have to be good to still be in business, given all the discount toy sellers today.)
• Make sure the toy is age-appropriate, especially if it may present a safety hazard to younger children. Toys that are too complex for younger children are likely to frustrate them.
• Look for toys with lasting play value, such as blocks, art supplies, or trains. These may not sound like seductive choices, but it's the "child that will add the bells and whistles," says Stephanie Oppenheim of Toy Portfolio, an annual toy-buying guide. Also, look for toys that foster interaction between parents and children, such as board games, she says.
• If at the end of the day you can't find what your child wants, give them an IOU – and make good on it. After Christmas, supplies invariably catch up with demand.
For other specific toy recommendations, check out the latest issue of Toy Wishes, the Toy Insider list at thetoyinsider.com, or the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio at toyportfolio.com.