Chasing the “It” Toy At Christmastime

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In 1983, when my wife was just a little girl, she wanted a Cabbage Patch Kids doll for Christmas. Her parents were unable to find one, but her grandmother apparently bribed a shelf-stocker at a TG&Y in rural Iowa to grab a couple.

In 1988, I desperately wanted the video game Super Mario Bros. 2 for Christmas. My father sat out on a loading dock behind a store for almost six hours, then bribed the guy unloading boxes with a $20 bill and five pounds of catfish fillets (my father was – and is – a small-scale commercial fisherman) to just put the game in his hands so he could go buy it.

In 1996, my niece wanted a Tickle Me Elmo. I was able to get one by going to a Toys ‘R’ Us store in West Des Moines, Iowa, waiting in line for three hours, then dashing for a huge display of them. I grabbed one, turned around, and tried to get out of the crowd when an old lady tried to actually take the toy out of my arms.

Why do this? For many of us, seeing the joy of a child receiving that one toy that they most want for Christmas is an enormous motivator. I know, certainly, that my best Christmas memories are of receiving that one toy I most wanted for Christmas, but I realize now that on some level, I realized that it was more than just the mere gift. I knew that my parents had gone through a lot of effort to get the item and make sure that I had it that year for Christmas, and I knew it was because they loved me very much.

In the end, I don’t really mind putting in a lot of effort to get that one gift that a child wishes for the most – I’m much more bothered by a mountain of gifts, as I’m a big believer in the idea of diminishing returns if a child receives a lot of presents. Thus, my gift-giving strategy usually is two or three great presents, period.

There are a lot of ways to track down that “it” gift each year:

Go shopping early on a Sunday morning. This is the time when most major retailers put out the items listed in their flyer, so if you spot a highly desirable item in a store’s flyer, you should get there early on a Sunday to procure it. I know that I used this strategy to get my Wii earlier this year.

Talk to the people in the store where you might find the item. Just ask when they usually receive shipments and whether or not they’ll be receiving a particular item soon. Even better, if you have a friend who works there, work out an arrangement where they can directly help you pick up the item (hopefully, it won’t involve you sitting out on the dock).

Call around. If the item is not sizzling hot, but a bit hard to find nonetheless, make it a routine to call a lot of local stores asking for the item on a regular basis. If they say it won’t be in stock, ask when it will be. If they don’t know, ask to talk to a manager. Sometimes, the item will wind up being ordered by that store.

Hit up Craigslist. Explain that you are trying to find a particular item for your child for Christmas and are looking for any pointers or people that have one for sale. This isn’t a guarantee, but there’s a decent chance you’ll find the help you need – but often at a premium.

The lazy solution: use eBay. For high demand items, eBay (and/or other online auction houses) is the best place to find a high-demand item – but you will pay out the nose for it. Stick with highly trustworthy sellers, too – again, you’ll have to pay a premium. However, in the end, you will get your item this way. This is definitely the lazy way to the solution.

What if you can’t afford or can’t locate that one item that your child most wants for Christmas?

Don’t make a big deal out of it. Bringing it up yourself and being upset about it will just stir emotions in your child. If your child is disappointed at Christmas, be simple but firm about it and just move on with life. If the

Find other items that the child wants. Never get in a situation where a child’s Christmas wish list consists of one item. Make sure that there are lots of items to choose from, so that even if one is a clear favorite, you still have many options.

Spend time with the child. Time is the best gift you can give, not a Nintendo Wii. Play a board game with your child, or take the child to a park, or just watch a movie together. That will mean far more to the child in the long run than a snazzy gift.

Thoughts and good stories about getting an “it” toy for Christmas are welcome in the comments.

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36 thoughts on “Chasing the “It” Toy At Christmastime

  1. All the best intentions aside, this is what has made Christmas a marketing holiday, where rampant consumerism and materialism has spoiled children (and adults) and people really have lost sight of the spirit of the holiday season.

  2. Hanging sentence fragment in the “Don’t make a big deal out of it” section.

    Also, when I was maybe 5-10, the last thing I would have wanted for Christmas was spending more time with my parents. (A coupon to spend a whole weekend alone in my room would have made me pretty excited, though.) Maybe that time with then would have been something I would have wanted in the long run, but if you had told me that as a kid, I would have thought you were pretty lame.

  3. Hi Trent. I love your blog and respect your opinions but I have to say that the very idea and existance of “it” toys offends me deeply. On principle alone I wouldn’t walk across the street to get an “it” toy for free.

    I defend the right of marketers and manufacturer’s to try to build the aura of “it” for their products but I equally defend my right, as a mother, to keep my children from being exposed to the media that encourages “it” toys. And, if exposed, I stand firm on my efforts to help my children see that their lives will not be ruined forever if they never receive an “it” toy.

  4. I thank my lucky stars that my kidlets only ever seem to have “it” toys that are “it” for them alone. I have not had to chase down a specific Webkins, doll, game or any item in this manner. We try to keep the “have to haves” at a minimum and they pretty much know what the status quo for amounts of toys is. We make it very evudent to them that living in a small house with 4 kids, there cannot be collections of toys- just toys that are actually played with.

    That being said, I am giving my daughter an AMerican Girl this Xmas. Some people freak about the $87 it costs per doll- but thru a chain of events, we got the very doll she likes free. I make the clothes myself from scrap I get from an upholstering uncle in law. Daughter in turn makes a lot of crafty things to play with the doll (salt dough foods, uses Happy meal toys for her girl to play with etc). It seems she is “getting” the frugality of it all.

  5. I have to agree with Elizabeth on this one, Trent.

    Back in the late 60s, I wanted “Baby Crawl Along” for Christmas in the worst way.

    I didn’t get it.

    I still count it in my “Top 5 Most Valuable Lessons”

    Kids need to be taught that they can’t get everything they want just because they want it, or because Sally got it or because TV tells them they have to have it. These parents who get trampled at the toy stores are idiots.

    Trent – you are a young parent – DON’T FALL INTO THE MARKETING TRAP.

    (funny, I wrote a term paper relating to this for an American Studies class)

  6. I’ve never had an “it” toy, but one year, I wanted a “bee that buzzes.” I was about two or three years old, and my dad searched far and wide for the toy of my dreams.

    I hadn’t seen the toy in an ad–it was actually something I dreamed up, and convinced myself it would be a neat thing to have.

    Good ol’ dad finally found that buzzing bee toy in a magic store. I don’t remember how I reacted, but hearing him tell that story to me years later made me realize that parents will do everything they can to make their child happy.

    That said, I refuse to participate in the “it” toy buying frenzy of the year. For one, I don’t have kids. Two, I think it’s insane.

    If parents restrict or limit their children’s exposure to television, it’ll be quite a bit harder for those kids to even know about those hot items.

  7. Ugh. I HATE the “it toy” phenomenon. Every year, the same news footage of Americans completely losing their minds to get this years toy. THe only thing that changes is the toy. Have some dignity people. The best thing you can do for your kids is take them out of this cycle. Don’t give in to the hype.

    As for the pleasure of seeing your kids get that one special toy, I agree. But do you think your kid REALLY wants the “it” toy, or has he just been brainwashed. I bet there’s another special toy, one that actually relates to his interests, that would truly make his christmas.

  8. You know, I can maybe remember two or three special toys/gifts from my childhood, none of which I of course use or even own today. But I can remember dozens – no hundreds – of special times from the holidays and birthdays of my youth. And those memories of special times – not special stuff – have APPRECIATED in value. I use and value those memories more with every passing year. “Stuff, there’s really no future in it.”

    -Jeff Yeager, The Ultimate Cheapskate

  9. Wow, sorry you had to go through all that trouble to get tickle me elmo. I was about 14 when that came out and was with my family at Baby’s-R-Us since my mom just had a baby. I saw Elmo and touched it and it did all this crazy stuff and thought it would be a cool gift for my baby brother. It was the only one on the shelf so we grabbed it and left. Only weeks later did we realize how hard it is to find such a thing.

    I was never the type to really had to have something. I knew you could just wait a few weeks and get it easily.

  10. I’m confused. Why should we ask children what they want for Christmas, or encourage them to make a wish list?

  11. For the “multiple stream” people out there the “it” toy represents a huge opportunity. I would never buy an “it” toy for myself, but I have totally invested my time to get my hands on several “it” toys (read: Wii) and sell them (at a very nice premium) on ebay to the lazy people. My moral objections will not stop the “it” toy craze, but that doesn’t mean I can’t profit from them. (Is that a conflict of interest?) If you do your research in August-October it is possible to get a grasp on what the “it” toy is going to be and start stocking up. As always there is risk, but with good research (and generous return policies at retail stores in case you’re wrong) it is possible to make a great income over the Christmas holiday season.

  12. Trent – I am surprised to see you endorse chasing the “it” toy, since you recently strongly endorsed the book “Born To Buy” as a “must-read”. Wasn’t it in your Top 10 books for the year? Your synopsis includes: “If you are the parent of a young child … you have to read this book. It really demonstrates the power that effective marketing has over young minds…” When parents chase down the “it” toys that the media & marketing create, we are just falling into America’s love affair with consumerism.

  13. Speaking of the “it” toy, I am still trying to get a Wii before the holidays. It is turning out to be quite the difficult find this year. Whenever a store like Best Buy gets a shipment there are people waiting for hours in line to get one.

    I guess I am out of luck because I won’t pay more than retail price, and I won’t wait in a long line to get one either. Oh well. I am thinking about a Playstation 2 instead, they are under $150 now.

  14. I love this blog, Trent, but have to disagree with this post.

    I desperately wanted a Cabbage Patch Doll when I was young, too, and didn’t get it.

    What I did get was a long discussion with my mother about why I wanted it (TV ads, everyone else had one, it’s just sooo cute, etc.). She asked why I thought it would make me happy, reminded me of the dolls I already had and loved, talked about the price and what other things could be bought or fun we could have for that amount of money, and said her buying me toys wasn’t a reflection of how much she loved me. I must admit, I wasn’t convinced. But I had a perfectly happy Christmas anyhow.

    And I still remember the Cabbage Patch Doll as the first time I started to learn about marketing and think about my wants as wants rather than needs. I honestly still think about that doll (which now seems kind of ugly) when I’m trying to resist the temptation to buy something I don’t need. It’s one of the central reasons I don’t participate much in the adult version of the “it-toy” phenomenon.

  15. Forgive my ignorance on the Iowa fishing industry, but…

    Commercial fishing in IOWA?

    Really? I’ve lived on the west coast my entire life (San Francisco) and I see commercial fisherman everyday…just this morning on the way to work, in fact. I have images in my head of what Iowa would be like, and I have never thought “commercial fishing industry”.

    I’m imagining one of those big crab boats I see in the mornings with big burly men on the deck trolling a lake!

    I hope I havent offended you or your father. I really want to know more about this.

  16. see, in 1983, when I really wanted a Cabbage Patch Kid, my parents knew someone who had relatives in Toronto, where the things weren’t nearly as stupidly popular, and actually paid $60 to get that thing. It rode several airplanes with different people to get to our house. And I never really liked it.

    Cabbage patch kids were ugly, and top heavy, and I wasn’t really a doll girl anyway. I just wanted one because everyone had one, so I needed one too.

    So my caveat is: find out why your kid really wants some toy before you risk life and limb trying to procure it.

  17. OK, this is really going to date me – let me just say that senior citizens really enjoy The Simple Dollar too!
    This topic just came up with my sons with the recent passing of Evel Kneivel (rest his soul). They still fondly remember their favorite “It” toy and all the fun they had with them. I don’t remember the year but the “must have toy” was the Evel Kneivel action figure with wind-up motorcycle. You would crank the bike then release it – can’t remember if it actually jumped or just took off and of course Evil Keneivel always fell off but the boys played with them continuously until they probably bit the dust. That was such a wonderful Christmas because the boys were thrilled – they got the one gift they really really wanted.
    We live in the Chicago area – that year Evil Kneivel was nowhere to be found – and we searched everywhere. Luckily for us we went out to Des Moines to visit family before Christmas. (Yes, good old Des Moines!). My brother drove me all over the city. We finally hit a discount place that unbelievably had two figures with motorcycles left. The boxes were battered and torn but the toys were in perfect condition – immediate purchase. As I remember they were on sale because the boxes were so bad – did the boys care – heck no, they were ripped into immediately after being unwrapped.
    Was it worth the aggravation of searching all over – YES it was. Will I do the same if one of my grandchildren want the “It” toy? Absolutely YES (within reason) but I won’t run all over – I will take the easy way out and buy off Ebay. After all – it’s Christmas – the one magical time of year for a wish to come true. My boys grew up in a frugal household so they heard the phrase “sorry no can do” all to often. It was as much of a thrill for us parents to indulge the boys in one wish on that one special day out of the year. It is one of their happiest memories and it was so worth it.
    As a side note – after that manufactures got smart. When the 6 Million Dollar Man came out there were plenty on the toy shelves – Steve Austin was readily available – another happy Christmas memory.

  18. When I was little, the *it* toy for me was a My Little Pony gymkhana. My mum got it for me in August, and then ensured that it remained my *it* toy until Christmas. She also likes to remind me of how clever she was more than 20 years later.

  19. I received a desperately wanted Cabbage Patch Doll when I was about seven.. I still remember opening it. It’s a great memory. That being said, I’m betting it was a lot easier for Mom and Dad to find one in our small town than it would have been in a large North American city. No Internet back then, otherwise the locals would have bought them all up to sell on eBay as David talks about above, and I wouldn’t have received one.

    If the child is older, you can gou with a written promise or giftcard towards the item they want. Hubby (who is a big kid a heart) got a Best Buy gift card and a note saying he could buy a Wii when it became available. Hubby got his Wii in February. This obviously won’t work for a five-year-old, but a 12-year-old will probably be able to cope with it.

    Of course, if you decide to skip the whole thing and use it as a life lesson, more power to you. Just ease them into it (or away from it) so you don’t crush their little hopes and dreams on the big day.

  20. If they really want a wii rip one off from a nursing home. No child really wants more “time with dad” they want a wii.

    Life lessons are stupid!

    Teach the kid a life lesson have him hate you for life.

  21. http://www.wired.com/gaming/hardware/news/2007/12/get_wii

    That’s actually a pretty good article if you’re seeking a Wii for profit. A few of the broad tips overlap from this article (we’re talking about two different things for the most part), but that’s mostly because they’re the ones that work (and they’re fairly obvious, too).

    As for whether I’d get my kid the “it” toy if they asked for it, I happily would without skipping a beat. Why? Because I know that I’d been teaching the child about marketing all the way along and I also recognize that for many toys like this, there is intense social pressure. I remember MANY Christmases where the non-stop conversation at school was an evaluation of those toys, and thus I would expect a child to probably draw some sort of conclusion from this. If I’ve done my job as a parent all the way along, my child is probably making something of a decent choice, and thus I’ll support their wishes. I see absolutely no problem with it assuming you’ve educated your child all the way along.

  22. I happened to be in Walmart on Tuesday and the guy in line in front of me had a Wii, they started selling their latest shipment of Wiis at 12n they were gone in less then 40 minutes, he had gotten the last one and was still looking for another.

    So you might want to check the big box stores for mid-week shipments.

  23. The only reason something is an “it” toy is because they say it is an “it” item. I got one of my Parenting magazines back in October and it said “These are the hot Christmas toys of 2007!” well I peeked inside and saw some toys here and there. Nothing astounding, nothing that I felt my daughter had to have.

    However I bet my bottom dollar that after reading that article tons of parents started running out to buy those particular toys because they were supposidly the hot 2007 toys. Then I suddenly started seeing commercials for these same toys. Toys that were unknown for months were all of a sudden got to have items.

    I am lucky that my daughter doesn’t watch the commericals that proudly claim that this toy or that toy is one they gotta have. She watches PBS, or movies.

    My daughter, when asked today by Santa, doesn’t want a webkin, a rose petal cottage, a anything “it” toy like, she wants a red dinosaur.

    Ummm can we say sweet! I’ll take that over standing in line for hours for some silly toy that is going to end up in a yard sale next year, any day. You want a dinosaur baby, you got it!

  24. One more piece of advice: If your kid is deadset on a certain toy, do NOT buy them a cheap imitation. Either get the real thing, or get something entirely different. Some years I got my “it” toy, other years I didn’t. And either way, I was pretty happy with what I got. But the one Christmas that really bugged me was when I got a hand-me-down dorky grown-up’s collapsible bike that was awkward to ride, instead of a regular kid’s bike. Every time I went to ride it, it reminded me that I didn’t get a “good” bike, but now I couldn’t ask for a bike for my birthday or next Christmas, ’cause I already had one. If your kid really really wants a Wii, get them a Wii or get them a bike. Don’t get them an XBox.

  25. Well — I don’t remember the ‘it toys’, but I do remember two gifts:

    1) the Christmas my mother sewed me the complete set of Winnie the Pooh characters (based on the Milne illustrations, not the Disney characters). Massive box under tree, huge thrill, toys were played with for well over five years.

    2) the massive handmade playhouse that Mom and Dad made out of a plywood pattern from Family Circle: four big pieces of plywood, about 4 feet by 2 feet each, cut into the shape of a house (wallpapered and decorated inside, with shingles and siding outside, and a doorbell, connected with double hinges so it could bend in either direction, forming a little ‘house’. Over the years this functioned as a house, a fort, a bridge, was hauled up into a tree house, lugged up and down the street to be played with in other kids basements, etc.

    When I look back on these now I remember the fun I had playing with them, but in retrospect as an adult I can see how much fun my parents had *making* them. And they were unique: no-one else had them.

  26. One of the most valuable messages my parents left me with: “Just because one sheep jumps off the cliff doesn’t mean they all have to.”

    Yipes! Do I hear the sound of a slipped trolley? “I knew that my parents had gone through a lot of effort to get the item and make sure that I had it that year for Christmas, and I knew it was because they loved me very much.”

    I would be very surprised if a child young enough to play with a Cabbage Patch doll (what a scam!) could possibly understand the significance of a parent bribing a clerk to get one…and if she did, is that really a message you want to pass along? Your kids don’t appreciate all the hassle and expense you go to to snatch up one of these rip-offs, nor do they take it as proof that you love them…and again, if they do, is that what you want them to think love means?

    No. Here are the messages these commercially promoted merchandising frenzies promote:

    “Me me me me me me me!”
    “Buying makes people feel good.”
    “Owning junk because everyone else owns junk is a positive good.”
    “Materialism is love.”
    “Dad loves me because he buys me things; if he doesn’t buy things for me he must not love me.”
    “Therefore, the more things I own, the more I must be loved” (extend that to adulthood: “The more things I own, the more successful I must be”)
    “All the other kids do it!”
    “We must do things because everyone else does them.”

    And…if I may go so far as to extrapolate a little further: the joy you feel at the two or three times the kid’s face will light up before he gets bored with the piece of junk amounts to a kind of materialism by proxy.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t give your kids nice things for Christmas. But what I am suggesting is that you should teach them independent thinking, skepticism about the huge marketing forces that control our lives from the toy store to the White House, and a desire to be their own persons.

    Resistance is NOT futile!

  27. Since everyone seems to be talking about Cabbage Patch dolls, I figure I need to share this. I was born in November 1983. Obviously far too young to even remember the craziness that was trying to get a Cabbage Patch Doll. My mom was working for the BX (Base Exchange for you non-military folks…kinda like a Wal-Mart for the Military) and her boss, knowing that she had just had me, set one aside for me. Her name is Maggie and I still have her to this day. She was one of my very favorite toys growing up. After I had played with her, I let my little sister play with her (as long as she promised not to mess her up) and I hope my daughter will enjoy playing with her as well.

    Moral of the story: Some “It” gifts are well worth the trouble…IF the child really wants it and understands why they want it. It’s also helpful if they are quality toys that can stand the test of time and won’t break within 6 uses.

  28. I got a cabbage patch doll as a kid, probably the year after it was really popular, but I never even wanted one, I wasnt really into dolls that much. In fact I took marker and drew all over the face, I still remember how mad my mom was, but I think that was when she realized that I wasnt like everyone else, I had my own interests and I got art supplies or craft kits from there on out. Today I am very interested in art and do this as a side business.

    The point is and “it” toy is so marketable because any one can use it and it does not reflect any particular interest. Instead, get to know your kids a bit and find out what really makes them tick, instead of going with whatever is trendy

  29. MY “it” gift a few years ago was one of those microbead “squushy” pillows. I got it the same Christmas as I got my MP3 Player (almost three years ago) and I remember the joy I had opening it.
    I agree, toy collections are kind of pointless. My parents always make sure when they get me a present, they try and include a Scooby Doo toy. However, one year they went around and got some really nice little toys, and then two 24 packs of Sharpies in fine and ultra-fine. Needless to say, I was much more excited about the Sharpies.

    If you have kids that like art projects, or calligraphy, or any type of art, and they know not to draw on furniture, get them a 24 pack of Sharpies, and a two pack of Silver Sharpies. If you get them on sale (Back to School Season is GREAT), this gift will only be about 10-15 dollars. I’ve had my 50 Sharpies for 2.5 years, and only the red has started running out, so I got a replacement for 50cents.

    My “It” items now are college money.

  30. I do not expose my kids to “wishbooks” or toy catalogs; have never done the letter to Santa Claus; don’t visit the dept store Santas. And we have no television to bring in the hyped-up commercials. As a result of all this advert suppression, they accept what they find under the Christmas tree. I buy them nice toys and books and games and clothing and usually a musical instrument and a computer program or two, but I don’t have to search for fad items or something advertised, and I can look for good prices.

  31. In 1983, the year of the cabbage patch, I asked for one, but my parents were unable to get their hands on one. My two best friends got one and I was down in the dumps Christmas Day. The day after Christmas, there was a package on my porch wrapped in plain brown paper w/ my name and address and a cool postmark. Inside, there was my Cabbage Patch with a note from Santa apologizing that he had gotten back to the North Pole and had found this in his sleigh. This was in writing that I knew wasn’t my parents. To this day, no one has fessed up to being “Santa”, but I have a guess. I can’t say that I loved that doll more than anything (it lost its magic after a couple of months), but I love and appreciate the lengths that someone went to to make an 8 year old feel so special!

  32. My neighbor sewed “cabbage patch” dolls for my sister and me. She even painted the faces. We loved those dolls so much.

  33. I can understand the part of the “it” toy craze that makes children want something very badly. The child learns a lesson if they find that the toy does not bring the happiness promised in the advertisements, and they get a bit of wisdom with their practical application of consumerism 101.

    The part I hate are the adults who latch on to every one of the toys that they find so they can put it in auction to rape the parents (who they call “the lazy people”) who search high and low for the toys only to find them always gone.

    Children are still learning, and perhaps their yearning for the next cabbage patch doll can be turned into a good lesson, but what about these adults? They are greedy, opportunistic, immoral, extortionists who insinuate themselves into the situation and actually CREATE the “it” craze so they can exploit it!

    By making the toys scarce and offering them only at high prices on an auction venue they make it necessary for people to stand in line for three hours hoping to grab one precious toy from a bin as fast as they can – no one wants to pay their ridiculously high prices! That is until it is down to the wire and they are blackmailed into paying whatever they can to win a bid for one.

    Children can learn lessons and can be shown to understand how this type of consumerism is harmful – but these soulless opportunists are lost. They have never learned about making an honorable living because they never grew beyond profiting by extorting a child’s Christmas dream.

    You can try to blame the “demand” for creating their right to “supply” at high prices – but then – that just makes them no better than OPEC in my book!

    (And no, I don’t have small children who want the toy hamster. My children are teens now. When they were younger and they wanted something of the “it” variety I explained that there were bad people out there holding the toys for ransom and that we would get one after Christmas when the hostages were released. My kids were fine with that and some times forgot about “it” entirely because they got to play with one their friend got and realized how lame it was!)

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