How to find best deals _ and that hard-to-find item _ as you scout for holiday toys

Looking for the holiday season's hot toys, like anything related to Disney's "Frozen"? Or maybe you're not picky and just looking for deals?

Toy sellers are increasingly catering to time-starved, budget-conscious shoppers with new features on websites or improved layouts in the toy aisle.

And you can expect more bargains than last year. Online king says it will be offering more discounts on toys.

In addition, Amazon's annual holiday toy list adds commentary from its product experts on the latest trends. You can browse through new categories like "Mom Picks" or "Classic" brands to find gift ideas and personal anecdotes from Amazon editors.

Toys R Us' website has a new "gift finder" that features top gifts for every toy category and allows shoppers to easily search items by age group and price range, among other factors.

Toys R Us has also launched two shops this holiday season at the front of its stores. One features new, hot products. The other one: Gift Express, which caters to grab-and-go customers with items for $30 or less.

Toy sellers aim to perk up sales that were flat last year, though they hope to get a boost this year from toys related to Disney's "Frozen" and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which could sell out quickly.

"Shoppers need to be strategic," says Chris Byrne, content director at TTPM, a toy review site. "You know the hot toys are going to sell out early, so buy those first. Then wait for the other things to be on sale."

The deepest discounts typically happen after Dec. 15, Byrne says.

Here are some tips:

— FINDING THE HOTTEST TOYS: For hard-to-find toys, sign up to stores' Twitter feeds and keep checking the aisles, says Laurie Schacht, CEO of the publication The Toy Insider.

Stores generally get new shipments on Thursday and Friday, so it's best to check then, Byrne said.

To make it easier, signing up for free membership at can get you e-mail notifications when a sold-out toy you want becomes available online. It automatically tracks 15 retailers, including Wal-Mart,, Toys R Us and Target. (It does not track availability in physical stores.) lists all the toy discounts offered over Thanksgiving weekend, Schacht says.

Many of the hottest toys are affordable and under $35, Byrne says.

For example, one of the most popular items is a collectible figure called Shopkins. A 12-pack sells for $12.99 at Toys R Us.

Price wars are heating up. For example, Wal-Mart is selling the Elsa Snow Glow doll from "Frozen" for $28.88, an $11 savings compared with rivals.

"This may be the best-selling item this year," Duncan Mac Naughton, Wal-Mart's chief merchandising officer, told investors earlier this month.

— FINDING THE CLASSICS: Customers looking to buy toys like wooden trains usually seen only in small shops have more choices this year.

Target has teamed up with dozens of specialty toy brands to offer hundreds of such items. They include such names as Wonderology, known for its science kits, and Hape, known for wooden toys like stacking blocks and trains.

— FREE LOYALTY PROGRAMS: Toys R Us' revamped loyalty program allows customers to get more rewards faster. Shoppers now can get a $5 coupon for every $125 spent at Toys R US or Babies R Us. Previously, they had to spend $250 to get the same reward.

As for Target, those who sign up for free on its Cartwheel app will be able to get daily 50 percent deals on different toys each day from Nov. 2 to Dec. 24.

— STRETCHING YOUR BUDGET WITH LAYAWAY: Toys "R'' Us, which has previously offered layaway in its stores, just introduced the pay-over-time service online at and

Toys R Us is also once again offering free layaway for the holiday season, waiving the usual $5 service fee, online and in stores.

Kmart and Wal-Mart also both offer layaway online and in stores. Kmart charges a $5 service fee for an eight-week contract and $10 for a 12-week contract.

As for Wal-Mart, it doesn't charge an opening fee, and requires either a $10 down payment or 10 percent of the total purchase of the items, whichever is higher.

Many stores limit layaway to certain classes of big-ticket items. So ask the store for its policies.


Follow Anne D'Innocenzio at