NEW YORK – When Andrea Pass went shopping for the Babbling Boo doll for her 8-year-old daughter early in November, she figured it would a cinch to find one. But only after she and her husband made dozens of visits to the malls and surfed the Web did her search have a happy ending.
The Fair Lawn, N.J. resident found the doll, tied to the Monsters Inc. movie, at Disney.com during Thanksgiving weekend.
Greg Szczepanek hasn't been so lucky with another hot holiday toy - Lego's Hogwart's Castle, tied to the Harry Potter movie - even after scouring store aisles near his Wyncote, Pa., home for several weeks.
Although the holiday shopping rush has just begun, there's a slew of hot toys, particularly some inspired by Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone, that are already scarce on retailers' shelves. And major toy retailers including Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, Kmart and KB Toys warn that within the next week or so, consumers won't stand a chance of finding many of this season's most popular toys in time for Christmas.
Other hard-to-find Harry Potter products include Lego's Hogwart's Express train, and Mattel's Snape Potion Lab and Levitating Challenge Game. From Monsters Inc., there's also Glowing Bedtime Sully from Hasbro.
Still other toys in short supply are LeapFrog's LeapPad, an interactive educational game; Spin Master's Shrinky Dink oven; Lego's Bionicles, and Hasbro's e-Kara, a karaoke set.
There's also a dearth in supply of the two hot new video game consoles - Microsoft's Xbox, and Nintendo's GameCube - whose holiday shipments were already expected to fall below consumer demand because of production shortfalls.
Such shortages of traditional toys are coming about 10 days earlier than in years past and in a wider variety of categories, according to Jim Silver, publisher of The Toy Book, an industry monthly. Last year, Sony's PlayStation2 was in great demand and hard to find, but there were few other toy shortages.
The drop in consumer spending this year prompted merchants to be extremely cautious in placing orders.
"A lot of retailers were skeptical ... and now they are caught short," Silver said, noting that many stores cut back on reorders following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Already, frustrations are running high among consumers.
"I went to Target the day after Thanksgiving to get one of those Babbling Boo dolls, and they were all gone," bemoaned Debbie Wade, from Burbank, Calif. "I had to get a rain check."
"I'm kind of kicking myself. I saw the Hogwart's Castle more than a month ago in the stores," said Szczepanek. "Now, there seems to be nothing left."
While there are a number of best-sellers this season, no one really hot toy has emerged. Consultant Chris Byrne doesn't expect there to be one.
"Our culture has awakened to the fact that many of these so-called fads are driven by the media," he said. "People are realizing there are better ways to buy appropriate toys than stand outside Toys R Us at 4 a.m."
And, he said, "There isn't the same level of desperation because there are a lot of good products out there."
Even Szczepanek is putting the whole thing in perspective.
"There is more than enough other Harry Potter merchandise," he said. "I can get a broom, a game ... If I can't get the Lego set, my daughters will be OK."
Byrne and others remain cautious about holiday toy sales in spite of the demand for Harry Potter and other products. He expects overall business to be little changed from last year.
"It will depend on the last week before Christmas, and whether people who shopped early come back to get more toys," he said.
He also forsees parents buying fewer toys, simply because they believe their kids just have too much.
The demand for the Harry Potter toys was already strong in October and soared right after the Nov. 16 movie opening. But it came too late for toymakers, whose products are mostly made overseas.
"There's no way possible for us to manufacture more for the holiday season," said Sara Rosales, a Mattel spokeswoman.
At Lego, "we knew Harry Potter would be huge, but we didn't think it would be this successful," spokesman Michael McNally said. The company plans to increase production, but it won't be in time for the holidays, he said.