Does It Make Any Sense to Reserve ‘Hot’ Holiday Toys?

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Peter Foley / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A scene at a Toys R Us store during last year's holiday shopping season.

Toys R Us just introduced a new “Hot Toy Reservation” program for the upcoming holiday shopping season. The retailer promises the new reservation system will put “an end to frantic searching in the days leading up to Christmas” for the hardest-to-find toys. But is the service really all that helpful?
“Why shop anywhere else?” Toys R Us asks in a press release announcing its big initiatives for the 2012 holiday season, which include the new “Hot Toy Reservation” service and free layaway through October 31. While these new promotions are presented as convenient and helpful options for shoppers, their first and foremost purpose is to get consumers into Toys R Us stores—and to stop them from shopping anywhere else, even at the Toys R Us website.

In theory, a “Hot Toy Reservation” system sounds wonderful. By allowing family and friends to reserve toys, Toys R Us eliminates the possibility of having to run from store to store and elbow other shoppers out of the way while on the hunt for the season’s most in-demand presents. By guaranteeing a toy will be held for a shopper making a reservation, the program also negates the possibility of being forced to pay through the nose for the item on eBay because that’s the only place you can find it available.

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But when you look at the particulars of “Hot Toy Reservation,” you’ll realize that it’s hardly a solution to avoiding the crazed, last-minute shopping spasms that have become holiday tradition. Here are a few reasons why:

Your “hot” toy might not be my hot toy. Toys R Us is expected to put 50 items on its “Hot Toy Reservation” list. What items they may be hasn’t been announced yet, but the info should be released within the next few days. Anything that’s not on the list can’t be reserved. So if your kid is dead set on a video game or action figure that’s not deemed “Hot” by Toys R Us, you’re on your own.

Your reservation has to be made by October 31. Surely, some kids write out their holiday wish lists months ahead of time, and when they do, they stick to it and don’t change their minds. But such kids are highly unusual. To participate in the “Hot Toy Reservation” program, a family really has to have its act together: Kids must know what they want well in advance (hopefully what they want is considered “hot” by you know who), and parents must get started with holiday shopping by October 31 at latest—a time when many are still scrambling to throw together Halloween costumes. For the program to actually be helpful, it would still be available for desperate shoppers around December 20, or at least December 1.

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It’s really hard to foresee what toys will be sold out. “I can’t predict the economy, but the last thing parents cut back on is toys,” Toys R Us CEO Jerry Storch said when introducing the new reservation system. Implicit in the program is the idea that Toys R Us can also predict what toys will be hottest and likely to be sold out by around the middle of December, or even sooner. This is silly, of course. If retailers and manufacturers could foresee which items would be in highest demand, they would figure out ways to get more of them onto store shelves and sellouts would almost never happen. So, while the main reason to reserve toys is to avoid being stuck empty-handed and having an unhappy kid come the morning of December 25, it’s impossible to tell which toys, if any, will truly be sold out—especially not by October 31, a time when relatively few kids have started thinking about their Christmas lists.

This is all guesswork. What Toys R Us seems to be doing with the reservation program, as well as the forthcoming release of its top 50 “hot” toys, is creating demand before it’s really there. The list is essentially telling parents what their children are going to want—before some kids may even be aware that these items exist. The item could wind up being the child’s absolute most favorite gift ever. Then again, the reaction after ripping open the wrapping paper might be: “Um, what’s this?”

You’ve got to put 20% down. To reserve a “hot” toy, a 20% down payment is required by October 31, and full payment and pickup must occur by December 16. If you’re actually certain this far in advance that you want some toy, why not just order the thing online? That’d save you two trips to the store. Speaking of which …

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“Hot Toy Reservation” isn’t offered online. Another of Storch’s comments explained, “There’s a lot of complexity administering this kind of program … This is the first time that we’re doing this. We wanted to make sure we do it right. We didn’t want anyone scamming the system, getting these toys and then selling them on eBay.” That’s why reservations can’t be made online. Accordingly, to use the system, a shopper must go not once, but twice to a Toys R Us customer service department—first to sign up, reserve, and make a down payment, second to pay in full and pick it up. Shoppers find out that their reserved item(s) are available at stores via e-mail—which demonstrates that Toys R Us is at least sorta up to speed with technology.

In the meantime, you won’t be shopping anywhere else. What with an item reserved and a down payment already out of pocket, it’s unlikely that a consumer using the reservation system will bother to shop around to see if another retailer has a better price. That’s a win for Toys R Us, but quite the opposite for the consumer hoping to get the best price on holiday gifts.

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In any event, cross your fingers and hope the toy you reserved is actually something that your kid will want a couple of months in the future.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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