By DAN CATERINICCHIA
The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 6, 2006; 6:38 PM
SEARCHING FOR ELMO -- I missed him by minutes at the Toys "R" Us. I was told he was in the back room at the KB Toys store. But I never saw his furry red face. After trudging through three malls and a dozen stores in four hours in the Washington metropolitan area one day last week, T.M.X. Elmo was nowhere to be found.
I didn't know that finding him and other holiday must-have gifts would turn into Mission Impossible. Along with the beloved Sesame Street character, I wanted to track down Sony's PlayStation 3, the Kid-Tough Digital Camera, and the popular UGG boots.
Since Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price toys comprised half my list, I started at KB's in the Westfield Montgomery mall in Bethesda, Md. Seventy-degree temperatures made it feel like June instead Dec. 1, but I was determined to achieve my goal.
My first stop was an unexpected success. There were three Kid-Tough cameras in the store around 2:30 p.m. _ half the shipment received earlier that day, the saleswoman told me.
I should have used one of the cameras to capture the big but fleeting smile on my face.
The store had no T.M.X. Elmos for sale and was not accepting any pre-orders until mid-December, if at all. There was a room full of T.M.X. Elmos under lock and key in the back but they were reserved for customers who had the foresight to place orders in early November, the saleswoman said. Some orders had been placed in September, she added.
I left in search of counsel and ran into Debbie Vaccaro and her family outside the store. She told me she had bought two Elmos at a local Target store. In September.
"We're professional grandparents," Vaccaro said, pointing to her husband, Beau Melvin. A substitute teacher at a nursery school where several of her five grandchildren attend, Vaccaro was clearly pleased as she described her accomplishment.
"It was amazing, I walked in the Target and there they were," she recalled. But 2-year-old Ollie and 3-month-old Nate were unimpressed. They slept nearby in a dual-seat stroller.
Meanwhile, I remained empty-handed. I turned to my wife, an expert shopping source, who recommended Nordstrom's for UGGs. As usual, she was right.
There was a can't-miss display of slippers and boots in colors ranging from classic black, brown and white to vivid hues that Elmo's fans would adore. The salesman said the store sells about 70 pairs per week and that the taller boots, especially a shade of brown called chestnut, sizzle.
But no matter where I went and no matter what size I asked for, tall chestnut UGGs were out of stock _ at least that day in these stores.
There were UGGs, in sizes I didn't need, in colors I didn't want. This was turning out to be harder than I thought. It would get worse.
I drove 16 miles to the Ballston Common Mall in Arlington, Va., in search of PS3s.
A display lured me into the FYE: For Your Entertainment store, but with more than 100 unfilled reservations for the sought-after gaming system, some made more than a year ago, I didn't stand a chance.
The EB Games store had sold the four PS3s it received that day before 4 p.m., and the salesman curtly told me future shipments would be sold on a "first-come, first-serve" basis.
At the KB, a salesman stopped dribbling a basketball long enough to tell me the Kid-Tough cameras sold out on Black Friday and hadn't been seen since. Elmo had sold out the day before I arrived, but they were expecting some the week before Christmas.
I left that mall after 25 minutes, despondent.
Cybershoppers must be wondering why I didn't go online for my wish-list items. I did check various retail outlet sites and found none offering the toys or the PS3. All four items could be bought on auction sites like eBay. But be prepared to spend more than store prices of about $40 for Elmo, $70 for the cameras, $600 for the PS3, and $150 for UGGs.
Like Ralphie and his BB gun from "A Christmas Story," I held out hope of finding my gifts. The Toys "R" Us in Bailey's Crossroads, Va., was bustling. Lots of people shopping. Looked promising. But no cameras.
"We get it and the first day, it's out," a smiling saleswoman said, snapping her fingers for emphasis. She couldn't have been any nicer about breaking my spirit.
No PS3s either and the salesman said it was "highly doubtful" more were coming before Christmas.
"Mom, can I get two things?" a little girl dressed in pink asked her mother as I walked by.
"No. You can get one," her mom replied.
I couldn't get any.
A shipment of 15 Elmos had arrived earlier that afternoon and the store didn't bother to put them on shelves, just stacked them in front as customers walked in. I know this not because I saw them, but because various sales associates told me that by arriving at 4:30 p.m., I had missed the frenzy by minutes.
Hokey Pokey Elmo was there in abundance, singing and dancing, almost mocking me. So I took "both feet out" and headed to the final mall of the day.
Resuming the UGG hunt, I made the short drive to the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, but the Walking Co. store had limited colors and sizes. Very limited _ black and a pinkish hue I asked about.
"Mink," the salesman answered, urging me to try Nordstrom's or Macy's for a better selection. I informed him that Macy's did not carry the boots as I had just left there.
The student becomes the teacher.
But at Nordstrom's, my newfound wisdom evaporated.
"You should have been here two months ago," the Nordstrom clerk said, as his colleague chimed in that the next shipment of Deckers Outdoor Corp.'s UGGs was scheduled for February.
I decided to take one more shot at the elusive PS3. The Sony Style store had more than 150 names on its waiting list, would not have any more consoles until January, and would sell those (say it with me, now) "on a first-come, first-serve basis."
The EB Games shop at Pentagon City received 10 PS3 units that day, all of which were sold in five minutes. There was no waiting list and the next shipment could be next week or next year. "We don't know until the day of," the salesman said.
In a technological age when consumers can track individual items by the hour ordered online, do retailers really not know when the next shipment is arriving? Just wondering.
It's now 5:30 and dark outside. My feet hurt even though I changed into sneakers before starting. I'm sweating. Undeterred, I cross a busy six-lane street to Best Buy.
I don't even have to ask. Large signs at the entrance say there are no PS3s or Nintendo Co. Wii consoles available. It's not that surprising since sales of both the Wii and PS3 are not expected to meet demand until next year, with Sony estimating it will have about 1 million systems for North American stores by the end of 2007 and Nintendo expecting to ship 4 million units.
At least the customers playing both systems Best Buy had on display seemed to be having fun. Probably professional shoppers and gamers.
They must already have their T.M.X. Elmos at home.