Oct. 19, 2006 — -- Looking for one of those hot, new Tickle Me Elmo 10th Anniversary Edition dolls for the holidays?
You may have some trouble tracking down one of the biggest must-have gifts of the 2006 holiday shopping season in a toy store or even at an online retailer.
But if you're willing to pay a few thousand dollars, there are more than a few sellers at online auction sites like eBay willing to part with theirs -- at least one seller is asking for $5,000 for the little guy.
How about a PlayStation 3, Sony's high-tech video-game console that has video-game junkies drooling even before it's released?
For about $1,500, you can purchase the right to buy one: a preorder someone else placed that won't be sent out until the machine ships on Nov. 17, and for which you'll still have to pony up the $600 ticket price.
That's not to mention the games and other peripherals, and, of course, whether the retialer can fill the preorders it's taken.
It's become a holiday ritual: a couple of products that are in such demand that people are willing to pay almost anything for them -- and do.
Cabbage Patch dolls, Furbie, the Xbox -- for the makers of those items it's hard to find the downside when it means that their products won't stay on store shelves for very long.
The practice is not necessarily illegal, but for customers it can be frustrating, turning holiday shopping into a cutthroat business where it's every man, woman, child and Muppet for themselves.
When someone goes into a toy store, buys up the new shipment of Tickle Me Elmo toys, then waits outside and sells them to desperate parents at prices that would make the little red hairs on the back of Elmo's neck stand on end, who's really getting hurt?
"Nobody's really getting hurt because it's all about supply and demand, and if someone wants something bad enough and is willing to pay more for it then they have a right to do so," said Jim Silver, editor in chief and co-publisher of Toy Wishes Magazine. "The consumer can easily wait until the item is more available."
That may sound good, but even Silver agrees that it doesn't sit well with those consumers who think their only option is to pay exorbitant prices to meet their kids' demands.
Though online auction houses like eBay may have made this practice easier, as long as there have been hot toys, there have been people willing to do crazy things to get them.
The scarcity of Cabbage Patch dolls and the high demand for specific models in the 1980s had parents camping out overnight outside of toy stores.
The original "Star Wars" toys were in such demand that the manufacturer sent them out even before they were completed.
"I think this has been going on in the toy industry forever," Silver said. "When I think of one of the greatest toy crazes of all time I think of the original 'Star Wars' toys. The movie was a big hit but the toys weren't ready, so Kenner sent out empty boxes and customers had to send in coupons a couple of months later to get the toys."
You might think that would have hurt sales, but the boxes flew off store shelves, put the toy company on the map, and turned the brand into one of the biggest sellers and most powerful names in the business.
Retailers have taken some steps to keep the practice from getting out of hand by limiting the number of an individual product that a customer can buy at one time when the item's in short supply.
Manufacturers stress that they're working to make enough product to meet demand so consumers won't be forced to turn to their opportunistic peers for hot holiday gifts like the new video-game console from Nintendo, the Wii.
"When you have one of the hottest products of the holiday season, the marketplace can sometimes respond with outrageous prices," said Nintendo's Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs in an e-mail. "But we have created a supply schedule that will ensure the availability of a steady stream of Wii consoles throughout the holidays."
Kaplan says the company will ship 4 million consoles worldwide with the majority of those coming here to the United States in order to meet projected consumer demand.
Sony, whose PlayStation 3 is expected to be virtually impossible to get with just 400,000 units shipping at launch, does not want to see its customers forced to pay more than the ticket price for its new video-game machine.
"We do not condone the resale of our products on eBay," a spokesperson for Sony said. "We feel strongly that all PlayStation products should be purchased through a licensed, trusted retailer."
Fear your kid won't be tickling Elmo this holiday? Not to worry, says Fischer-Price spokeswoman Brenda Andolina.
"We know the product is in very high demand," she said. "But there is going to continue to be a steady flow of product going out to retailers. We hope that premium market won't be something they [consumers] have to resort to."
"It's a shame that there are people who are going to buy not one of these products for one special child, but 10 so they can resell them," said Adrienne Citrin, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry of Association.
Citrin says that while there are actions being taken by some retailers to stop this from happening, the easiest way to make sure you don't have to pay several times the retail price for a hot product is to make sure the person you're giving it to actually wants it.
"Parents need to keep in mind what their child's interests are and what age group they're in," she said. "Before parents jump on the bandwagon, they should be sure that the must-have toy of the season is the must-have for their child."
Too often, she says, parents get wrapped up in the hype and assume a hard-to-get gift is what their kid craves when it's not appropriate, is too complicated, or simply is of no interest to the child.
Silver says if you don't want to pay eBay prices for hard-to-find gifts, another option is to wait until after the holidays when they're easier to track down. Or, if you need something to fill the void, buy something else.
"If you're a video gamer and you love games and you want one of the new systems and you can't get the PS3 [PlayStation 3] and you really want a new gaming unit and the Xbox 360 is sitting on the shelf, someone who might not normally cross over, will," he said.
Whatever you do, don't panic. There are a lot of great products just off the media's radar that may give you or your child as much, if not more, of a thrill than the hard-to-get ones once they've stripped back the wrapping paper.
That is, if you can find any.