Those who know the toy industry offer a gentle reminder to parents in no rush to shop for the holidays: It's never too early to spring for a hot toy.

Barbie as Rapunzel, the doll with "more than a foot of luxurious locks," already is a tough find in some stores, toy industry watchers say.

So is Chicken Dance Elmo. Fisher-Price has the furry "Sesame Street" creature dressed like a chicken, flapping his wings and moving his legs as he does that dance we all try to avoid at weddings.

Harry Potter's Chamber of Secrets Lego set is already gone from some stores, one toy expert said after visiting a few this week.

Don't panic. The operative word is "some." But keep in mind that the norms of holiday shopping do not apply to toys.

For most retailers, the holiday shopping season begins the day after Thanksgiving and peaks the weekend before Christmas. But the most popular toys start flying off the shelves in October, sometimes well before Halloween.

Halloween plays a part in that phenomenon. It lures parents into the toy stores early, often with their kids, to buy costumes, candy or decorative trinkets.

More often than not, kids will latch onto a toy along the way.

Some parents succumb, and if that toy is a hit with little Johnny, he most likely will share it with (or show it off to) his peers, creating the kind of buzz every toymaker craves.

So begins the toy-selling season.

"As soon as one child in the peer group learns a specific item they want is available, they share that intelligence with every other child," said David Leibowitz, an analyst with Burnham Securities. "If you replicate that experience in enough peer groups nationwide, you'll have a hot product."

Creating a hot product involves a lot of guesswork. Gut instinct is a driving factor, as is past experience, Leibowitz said.

Lines that did well the previous year, such as Harry Potter, are a safe bet, he said.

So are licensed products tied to popular movies, cartoons or TV shows (think "Star Wars" or "Sesame Street"). But the success of such products rises and falls with that of the licenser. For instance, the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire board game did exceptionally well until the TV show's audience diminished, Leibowitz said.

Another risk with licensed movie merchandise: the whims of film studios. Once in a while, a toymaker will create an action figure for a 5-year-old based on the script of a G-rated movie only to find that the final release is rated PG-13.

"You want the kiss of death for a toy?" Leibowitz said. "Come up with a toy aimed at a 5-year-old who can't go see the movie."

With so many potential pitfalls, it's no wonder toymakers and retailers start planning early for the holidays. Very early.

Hasbro Inc. and Mattel Inc., two of the larger manufacturers, already have their eyes on Christmas 2003. Last week, the companies held private showings for retailers eager for a peek at next year's offerings, said Jim Silver, co-publisher of Toy Wishes magazine.

In February, at the American International Toy Fair in New York, retailers will place their orders.

Based on those orders, manufacturers can gauge which toys to produce and in what quantities.

The scenario has played out for decades. One thing never changes, Silver said: The toymakers always assume they're better off making too little of a product than too much. The idea is to insulate themselves against toys that flop.

As a result, hot toys usually sell out early. Silver expects that some of this year's in-demand merchandise will be gone by Dec. 1, if not Thanksgiving.

Under normal circumstances, retailers would order late shipments -- if any are available. But because of backlogs at the West Coast docks this year, manufacturers shipping from Asia may have a tough time filling such orders in time for the holidays, Silver said.

But don't worry. Prices won't go up as a result of shortages or pent-up demand, Silver said. They never do, at least not in mainstream retail outlets.

"The toy industry is an odd industry in that respect," Silver said. "In most businesses, when there's a hot item, the price goes up. But in the toy industry, the price can actually go down."

Here's how it works, he said: A retailer will put away its top sellers and then bring them out later in the season, slash their prices and promote them like crazy.

"The retailers use these items as loss leaders to bring people into the store," Silver said.

Don't play the waiting game, he advised parents.

"If you know there's one or two things your child really wants, buy now," Silver said. "It's never too early to start shopping."

Margaret Pressler is on leave. Her Selling Us column will return early next year.