zhu zhu pets

This is a "Zhu Zhu Pet," retailing for about $10. It's one of the hot toys this season, but don't be surprised if you can't find it.

Remember the hot toys from years past–Tickle Me Elmo, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Furby? This year the holiday season’s early hit is the Zhu Zhu Pets hamster, an interactive mechanical rodent. But it is also almost impossible to find as the holiday shopping season draws near. It’s not because parents are rushing out to buy the robotic mouse.

No, instead of those parental buying binges of the past, the empty shelves are pointing to another trend in our down economy: The shortages come from stores that are concerned about ordering too much (like they did last year), and are keeping their inventories thin.

The result, with seven weeks to go before Christmas, is that popular toys and perhaps even the unpopular ones are already hard to find.

(Other hot “must have” toys this year are Mattel’s Mindflex, a Nerf dart thrower called Nerf N Strike from Hasbro Inc., and Barbie Fashionista.)

One analyst at Timetoplaymag.com predicted shortages of the top 100 toys by early December, rather than the traditional top 15.

Other analysts report that in recent weeks toy makers have dispatched executives to China to make sure they get enough products to keep shelves full.

Last year retailers ordered too much merchandise and had to take huge discounts almost as soon as the products hiot the shelves. You’ll remember the headlines last year that said holiday sales posted their biggest decline in at least three decades. That was enou8gh to put stores like Circuit City out of business.

This year, Karabus Management, a retail advisory firm reports that inventory is 8 to 13 percent smaller for mid-price clothing, and 10 to 15 percent smaller for home furnishings.

My advice as inventories are shrinking: Shop early. Better yet, do something really radical this holiday season and find creative–even philanthropic–ways to give gifts to loved ones!

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