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Smart Spending: Strategies for finding hot toys

It's that season again, when parents begin the scramble for the next toy their child can't live without.

While there's no breakout hot toy for Christmas this year _ so far _ as parents know, that doesn't mean the most popular presents will be easy to find. This year, stores are being cautious with inventory, so some toys might be scarce on store shelves when the holidays get nearer.

But never fear: Here are some strategies to make sure that whatever toy your child wants, from the latest Monster High doll or robotic Furby pet to the child-size LeapPad Explorer, is under the tree _ without having to pay exorbitantly on eBay or elsewhere.

_ SHOP EARLY: Toy makers and retailers are working more diligently than ever to ensure that there won't be a large oversupply of toys after the holidays are over, which ends up costing them money.

Jim Silver, an analyst at Timetoplaymag.com, predicts the hottest toys will be scarce by Dec. 1 _ a time when many people are just starting to think about Christmas gifts. So even though you're child's thoughts may still be on Halloween, now is the time to figure out what he or she wants and start shopping.

_ MAKE A RESERVATION: Fortunately, this year stores are making it easy to shop early, with layaway services and other offers. So even if you don't have the cash yet, you can still start shopping. Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and Kmart have dropped fees, minimum balances, and other requirements to make it easier than ever to use layaway programs. In addition, Toys R Us this year launched a "hot toy" reservation system, which lets parents reserve hot toys before they even hit shelves.

_ GO ONLINE: Not only can ordering toys online make shopping quicker and easier, it's also a trove of information. Check out a brand's Facebook page or Twitter hashtag to find other people looking for the same toys who may have tips on where to find them. In addition, using a shopping cart on Amazon may help you save money. Amy Barseghian, mother and blogger at mommy-mentor.com, recommends filling up your Amazon cart with toys _ but waiting to actually buy them. If an item in your cart gets cheaper, Amazon will send you an alert.

_ BE SMART ABOUT STORE STOCKING: The days of running from store to store trying to find the hot toy are over, because most stores have added online services that can tell you which location has a product in stock. Many also offer ship-to-store options or same-day delivery. If they don't, Vanek recommends calling before you go. If the store doesn't have an item, make them do the work of calling other locations to locate what you want. Timing is key, Emily Vanek, mother of three sons and owner and editor of ColoradoMoms.com, says. She advises, if possible, to go shopping at lunch on Fridays, when stores are freshly stocked right before the weekend rush.

"That's how we scored quite a few toys," she says.

_ ENLIST YOUR FRIENDS: Your best weapon for finding hot toys may be your social circle. Vanek says she makes a list of all the toys on her list and then shares it with her friends, who also have their own lists.

"We all know what each other's kids want, so if we see something, we'll buy it and swap later," Vanek says. If the other person already has that toy, just return it. "It beats looking for something on eBay and spending two or three times as much."