Toy shopping tricks: How to pick a winning present

As Hanukkah begins next week and Christmas is fast approaching, retailers, manufacturers and magazines are inundating consumers with toy guides and rankings, perhaps overwhelming the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who are on the hunt for the perfect present.

The best hints about the ideal present come from the child

'Tis the season for 'top toy lists' as shoppers try to find the perfect gift for the children and teens in their lives. Star Wars toys, build-it-yourself-personal robots and drones are among the popular items this year. But the Canadian Toy Association says classic lower-tech toys — including board games — are also in high demand. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

As Hanukkah begins next week and Christmas is fast approaching, retailers, manufacturers and magazines are inundating consumers with toy guides and rankings, perhaps overwhelming the parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles who are on the hunt for the perfect present.

Although many toy guides are marketing tools, some "can be helpful," said Lori Parker, co-owner of Treasure Island Toys, an independent store in Toronto. "They can be great sources for … different toys, unique toys," she said. "They're also great to identify what the big trends are."

But consumers should be careful not to just grab a toy because it's on a top toy list, Parker cautioned. "I think when I was a new mom I fell into that trap," she said. "You have to go through … [the guides] and be very selective."

Joanna Mileos, independent owner of the Granville Island Toy Company in Vancouver, is skeptical about many of the toy guides and top toy rankings that come out each year. 
Lori Parker, co-owner of Treasure Island Toys in Toronto, recommends choosing toys that kids will enjoy playing with over and over again, not just for a few minutes on Christmas morning. (Nicole Ireland/CBC )

"My advice would be to look at who is voting on these toys," she said. "The manufacturer themselves? As a toy store owner, I don't consider the lists that the manufacturers come out with, as I feel they are going to do their best to promote their own products."

Child is the best toy guide 

Steven Koschuk, a father shopping at Treasure Island Toys, said he pays no attention to toy guides or top toy lists. 

His 14-year-old daughter wants fashion accessories or cash as holiday gifts, he said, while his 3½-year-old daughter wants things she sees on TV. 

"It's just this non-stop verbal train of 'I want that, I want that, I want that,'" Koschuk said.

He often decides what he'll buy her, he said, by taking a trip to the neighbourhood toy store. 

"We'll go for a walk on a Saturday or Sunday, and we'll come in here and we'll kind of wander around," he said. "I'll watch her and see what she gravitates toward."

Observing a child's specific interests is the way to go, Mileos said. 

"The best toy guide comes from the child," she said. "Focus on the type of play your child enjoys."

That can be an effective way to use certain toy guides, Parker said. "[If children] circle something and they circle it in three different guides and they really, really want it … that's something that you have to be aware of." 

'The best toy guide comes from the child,' says Joanna Mileos, owner of The Granville Island Toy Company in Vancouver. 'There are many toy guides that come out every year. My advice would be to look at who is voting on these toys.' (The Granville Island Toy Company)

Another customer, Sarah Murray, said that as a grandmother, she feels she's "a little bit out of the loop" when it comes to what kinds of toys her grandchildren and their friends are drawn to. 

"I feel like I need a bit more guidance than a mom or dad might," she said. But instead of turning to big-box store toy guides, Murray does her research on "websites devoted to parents expressing what are the best toys," as well as Montessori toy information sites. 

"Those I tend to look at a lot just to get ideas for what toys might work for certain ages," Murray said. 

'Play value' 

Mileos and Parker advise looking at the "play value" of a toy before buying it.

"Something that wouldn't have a high play value is something that's just popular at Christmas morning when they unwrap it and they play with it for a few minutes … then they move on from it [and don't play with it again]," Parker said.

A good toy pick is age-appropriate, so the child won't be frustrated or bored, Parker said. It can also be played with in different ways, hold a child's interest and help him or her develop skills. 

"Think about what the child can do with the toy," Mileos added. "What kind of play will the toy encourage? Motor skills, imaginative play, logical thought, language development, social interaction?" 

A toy doesn't need to be labelled "educational" to provide learning or have high play value, noted Katie MacKinnon, Parker's co-owner at Treasure Island Toys. 

The co-owners of Treasure Island Toys, an independent store in Toronto, say Lego is an excellent example of a toy with 'high play value,' because kids can play with it in different ways, use their imaginations to make new creations, and enjoy it through different stages of development. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)

For example, a science kit might be educational, MacKinnon said, but wouldn't have much play value if a child can only do one experiment with it. And Star Wars action figures can have a lot of play value, she said, because children use their imaginations and create their own stories when they play with them.   

There's also a financial component to play value, Mileos said.

"Basically, the most affordable toy is the one your child plays with the longest," she said.

If a toy costs $40 and a child plays with it for at least 40 hours before getting bored, Mileos said, that's a better buy than a toy that cost $25 but the child grows tired of after half an hour. 

MacKinnon and Parker — both parents themselves — said Lego is a good example of a toy with consistently high play value.     

"It's really something that can be played with in so many different ways and that really lasts through different stages," Parker said. "Some kids ... build the model then they keep the model. They put it up on a shelf and it becomes a collector's piece. Some kids like to build the set and then it falls apart and then they start developing brand-new things out of it."

Toy trends for 2015

The Canadian Toy Association, which represents toy manufacturers and distributors, says these are some of the trends this year:

1. Licensed toys based on movies, TV or web

Not surprisingly, all things Star Wars are very popular this year, as the latest movie is set to be released on Dec. 18. Donna Polimac, chair of the toy association's communications committee, says many toys stem from online games like Minecraft or Angry Birds. 

2. Collectibles

Demand for Shopkins — small plastic toys with faces drawn on them, as well as larger dolls — has erupted this year, Polimac says. Kids collect and play with them, and also trade them. 

3. Interactive toys

One of the top picks this year is the Meccanoid robot by Meccano, Polimac says. Kids build their own personal robot and then interact with it. The robot tells jokes, plays games and dances.  "You can actually do karate with it," Polimac says. 

4. Classic toys and games

"Old things are new again," says Polimac. Tabletop hockey games and board games are very popular. "I think people ... are worried about a generation that's going to grow up in front of screens," she says, adding that board games teach important social skills, such as learning how to take turns.       

5. Science, technology, engineering, arts and math

"These are toys that actually have some sort of learning element," Polimac says. "Not necessarily ABCs [and] one-two-threes-specific learning but more around innate learning." For example, a toy that teaches patterns can help set the stage for a child to learn computer code in the future, she says. There is a wide range of toys listed in this category, from a kit to make glitter clay charms to a robotic arm. 


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