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Last-minute toy shoppers may find only empty shelves in stores

In the first holiday season without Toys R Us, popular items may be sold out by the week before Christmas

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Shoppers could walk into Toys R Us at the 11th hour and still find something they wanted, but the retailers that have stepped into the void do not provide the same kind of dependability, say experts.

Washington

THE holiday whirlwind often leaves even the most organised shoppers scrambling as Christmas draws closer, but experts say if you're trying to snag hot toys at the last minute, you'll probably head home empty-handed - yet another shift in the first holiday season sans Toys R Us.

Since Toys R Us liquidated its stores this year, many of the biggest names in retail have angled to snag a piece of the former heavyweight's business.

Amazon, Walmart and Target have been leading the pack, introducing toy catalogues and substantially increasing their toy inventories.

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But their strategies reflect businesses that aren't toy-centric outside the holiday season, which means they're aiming to sell out by the time the stockings are stuffed, according to Adrienne Appell, senior director of strategic communications for the Toy Association.

"This is the first time a lot of these stores are stepping into the toy market in a big way," Ms Appell said. "You're going to see toys in a lot more places this year, but they also want to make sure they're not left with inventory."

Nearly half of sales in the US$3.3 billion American toy industry happen during the holidays, according to research from the NPD Group, with business getting progressively busier the closer it gets to Christmas.

For Toys R Us, which commanded about 12 per cent of the US toy market in 2017 according to NPD, last-minute dependability was a unique highlight in its holiday strategy.

"The difference between Toys R Us and everyone else is that Toys R Us would want their shelves to be fully stocked towards the end of the year," Ms Appell said.

"If you didn't have something in the 11th hour, you could walk into Toys R Us and expect their shelves to be full."

Holiday toy sales are high-stakes for buyers, since Christmas lists of children are often highly specific and inflexible.

About 70 per cent of Toys R Us's sales were because "kids asked for the specific toy or brand of toy", NPD senior vice-president Juli Lennett wrote in a blog post in October.

But while other retailers have stepped in to become the new holiday toy destination, pushing their line-ups of hot toys like Hatchimals and L.O.L. Surprise eggs, they're bulking up early with the intent to sell out.

According to a recent survey by D.A. Davidson, out-of-stock situations in toys around Black Friday were lower than normal - but they're getting higher as Christmas approaches.

Big-name toymakers, like Mattel and Hasbro, are also wary of having too much product left on their hands after the new year, and that too will lead to empty shelves earlier. The takeaway: waiting to buy popular toys is a big gamble this year.

"The hot toys will probably be 80 per cent gone by in the week or so before Christmas," said Linda Bolton Weiser, an analyst with D.A. Davidson.

Amazon may be best suited to fill orders late in the game, Ms Bolton Weiser said, because the online giant has historically had deep inventory. But last-minute online orders are still vulnerable to shipping delays or mishaps.

"Ordering anything online is a crapshoot," Ms Appell said. "If there's something your kids are really asking for, don't wait." WP