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Thursday, 21 December, 2000, 11:25 GMT
Presents of Christmas present

In the second of a three-part series, we look at the top toys children will be unwrapping this Christmas. On Friday we look ahead to the toys of tomorrow.

With shopping days to Christmas running short, have you got your hands on this season's must-have toy yet? Well, your child could be better off going without.

The Tickle-Me-Elmo dearth; the great Buzz Lightyear drought; the Furby famine - Christmas isn't Christmas without the shops running short of a must-have toy.

This year is no exception. At least two must-haves are now being billed as not-on-your-nellies.

Toy Story II's Buzz Lightyear
"Take the Speak and Spell instead. He's educational."
Sony has been criticised for only releasing 165,000 Playstation 2 games consoles in the UK, compared to the one million available in Japan when it was launched there.

Even at 299 a pop, all the officially available machines have long since been snapped up.

Just like Sony, the makers of the Thunderbird's Tracy Island toy are pleading logistical problems for a chronic shortage of the replica bases inspired by the 1960s TV puppet show.

Island hoping

More than 500,000 UK shoppers are clamouring for the models, but makers Vivid Imagination have produced a scant 60,000.

Moira Downie, of the British Association of Toy Retailers, dismisses the notion that shortages are a ploy to raise the profile of a product.

"Toy shops do most of their business around Christmas and they hate being caught out like this."

Gerry Anderson, creator of the Thunderbirds, with the Tracy Island toy
Thunderbirds have gone, I'm afraid
Ms Downie says retailers generally do quite well at guessing how many of a particular toy they will need, but are fearful of over-ordering.

"If you get it wrong and buy too many, you can go out of business. Sometimes retailers buy too few of one toy, but usually it's only one out of all the other lines they stock."

Tracy Island is a very good example of this, she says.

"Some retailers were saying: 'It's the third time this toy has been out. Kids are far more sophisticated, they aren't going to want it.'"

Tubby trauma

Ms Downie says it was this caution which caused a genuine shortage. "It isn't a media-generated frenzy. The public just want Tracy Island."

The Teletubbies craze followed a similar pattern, says Ms Downie, with retailers unable to believe the brightly-coloured children's TV characters would prove popular.

A crowded Woolworths store
"Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La La or Po, I can't decide."
When shops introduced Tubby-rationing, chartered educational psychologist Jenni Smith heard from one father who had queued for 48 hours to secure a complete set of the four dolls.

"He said his four-year-old daughter would never forgive him if he didn't. Buying 'fad' toys is just an example of adults being silly. Children won't be damaged by not having the latest toy."

Going without the must-have toy may actually aid a child's development, says Ms Smith.

The gift of disappointment

However painful the lesson, waking up on Christmas Day to find no Tracy Island under the tree will teach children disappointment, and "children should learn disappointment", she says.

Young ones should also be made aware of the cost of presents, particularly if they have requested expensive toys.

The BBC sitcom Keeping Mum
"But I wanted a scooter, mummy!"
"A lot of poorer families go through hell at Christmas. Children aren't fools, they should be brought into the choice. 'You can have this, but not that.'"

Nearly half of all seven to nine-year-olds in the UK think they get too many presents at Christmas, a recent survey found.

So what do you buy? Ms Smith says there is no such thing as a "useless" toy.

"Toys are the tools of play, and play is the work of childhood. Toys are not only fun to use and attractive to look at, they facilitate the acquiring of skills."

Monopolising the toy market

Traditional board games and wooden toys are giving the likes of Tracy Island a run for their money this year, reports the British Association of Toy Retailers.

"Traditional toys still have a place, especially at Christmas when grandma might not want to interact with a computer and may prefer snakes and ladders," says Ms Smith.

"Board games teach turn-taking skills, social skills, about winning and losing and also improve counting."

Lord Archer at a Monopoly competition
Board games can teach you about losing
Though an advocate of the value of toys, Ms Smith holds out some hope for any parents who return empty-handed from the High Street crush.

"Researchers have placed children in rooms without toys. After the initial shock of having just four walls and themselves they begin to play nevertheless," she says.

"It's good for them to be made to think, rather just than have a plastic representation of the latest TV character."

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24 Nov 00 | Business
Sony's marketing hype
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