Is Disney's 'Elsa' the blockbuster holiday toy?

By Tod MarksConsumer Reports

Surfing channels recently, I stopped on QVC for a Joy of Christmas promotion (in mid September, mind you), mesmerized by the frenzy around a little singing doll. By the time I tuned in, nearly 42,000 of the glowing Elsa dolls, accompanied by Olaf the snowman, had been scooped up at a price of $35 each.

For those of you without little girls, Elsa the snow queen is a heroine from Disney’s wildly successful animated film "Frozen." The Broadway actress and singer Idina Menzel (Adele Dazeem to those who recall John Travolta’s flubbed introduction of Menzel at the Oscars, which made her an even bigger star) is the voice of Elsa. And that’s what makes the doll a sizzling commodity. With a touch of her magical snowflake necklace, Elsa talks to her "Frozen" friends (she utters 15 phrases from the movie) and her dress lights up. She also sings Menzel’s Academy Award winning blockbuster, “Let it Go.”

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Ken O’Brien, senior vice president of merchandising and planning for QVC, says the glowing doll made its debut on the shopping channel during its Christmas in July promotion on July 31, and has since sold more than 23,000 units. O’Brien expects all "Frozen" merchandise to be hot commodities this holiday season. Customers have placed more than 258,000 orders to date for merchandise related to the movie.

For more information on toys and safety for kids of all ages, read the Toy Buying Guide from Consumer Reports

Distributed by Jakks Pacific and aimed at children 3 and up (it’s not for younger children because of small parts that could pose a choking hazard), the doll is also on the hot list of Walmart and Toys “R” Us. User reviews are overwhelmingly positive. While the going rate for the doll is about $35, we spotted it on eBay, accompanied by warnings of impending shortages, for as much as $200. When we checked, supplies seemed plentiful at retail stores and online sellers such as Amazon, though we noticed intermittent out-of-stock notices.

If Elsa or other hot tickets are on your gift list this year, here are some tips to avoid disappointment and getting gouged.

• Begin checking on availability as soon as you’ve identified the must-have present. Read buyer reviews to see if there have been supply interruptions. If major sellers such as Amazon are experiencing periodic shortages, it could be a red flag to act.

 Pay attention to the buzz and trends. Media interest in hot products can make them more desirable, meaning you could get shut out by waiting too long. Halloween is another barometer of customer sentiment. If, for instance, Elsa and other "Frozen" character costumes are all the rage leading up to Halloween (hint: they are),  it's a good indicator of Christmas demand.

• If the item is not in stock, preorder it, if possible, to better your chances of success when the shelves are replenished. Consider preordering from multiple sellers to hedge your bets, as long as you can return or cancel  without penalty.

•  Act sooner rather than later if the gift is from a boutique brand or manufacturer, which may lack the production capabilities or distribution network of a major company.

• Don’t assume an item is unavailable in stores if it’s out of stock online—or vice versa. The Elsa doll, for example, was out of stock when we shopped, but plentiful at a local store.

•  Consider setting up a layaway plan if it’s an expensive item, so you can pay a little off at a time and take possession after the final payment is made as the holidays loom.

• If time is running out and you feel compelled to pay an inflated price on eBay or to a third-party marketplace seller, be sure to ask if the item is new and unsused, in its original packaging, and comes with a warranty. Ask if returns are accepted as well.

—Tod Marks

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