The electronic hand-held Pac-Man toy was $44.97 at a local catalog store and $99.95 at a toy specialty store -- a difference of 122 percent. The Brooke Shields doll cost $7.97 at the toy specialty store and $14 at a department store -- a 76 percent difference.
Those two examples of the often startling price variations found in the 11th annual toy survey compiled by the Consumer Affairs Committee of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) once again demonstrate the importance of shopping around.
In analyzing prices for a market basket of more than 45 toys at area stores, the consumer group concluded that Best Products was the lowest priced toy merchant in the Washington metropolitan area, followed by Toys R Us, Juvenile Sales, Sears and Memco. The highest priced of the stores surveyed was F.A.O. Schwarz.
"One caution for consumers is that Best (even though it has the lowest prices) carries only about half of the toys in the survey," said Jane Rich, who directed the price survey, which was conducted in mid-November. She said that Toys R Us and Juvenile Sales, though they had slightly higher prices than Best, did carry most of the toys surveyed.
Rich suggested that parents who want to buy a particular toy call several stores in advance to find out whether the item is in stock and how much it costs.
But if you are going to buy toys, you should consider safety as well as price. Last year an estimated 128,000 children were hurt in accidents associated with toys, according to government statistics.
Many of those injuries happened because the toy wasn't safe: it had sharp edges that cut small hands and faces, it was so small that babies could choke on it, or it had sharp points that punctured arms or legs. Many other injuries resulted because the toy was safe only for older children; others occurred because the toy wasn't used properly.
To help consumers avoid toy accidents this holiday season, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has launched a national toy safety crusade to raise consumer consciousness about the need for buying safe toys and keeping them safe through proper maintenance and storage.
Nancy Harvey Steorts, chairman of the commission, emphasized the need for parents to match the toy to the child's age, interest and ability. The CPSC also urges that toys be checked periodically for breakage and potential hazards. In addition, toys should be stored properly, so that no one trips and falls over them.
Buying a toy box for storage is a good idea, but only if the box lid has safety hinges. If it isn't, don't buy it, or buy safety hinges separately and install them before using the box, Steorts advised.
At least 21 deaths and one case of permanent brain damage have occurred over the past nine years because of falling lids on toy boxes that didn't have the safety hinges. The CPSC has begun steps to require the hinges, but that requirement won't take effect in time for this Christmas.
In the meantime, the commission has specific recommendations for toy shopping:
* Read labels to make sure the toys are nontoxic, have flame retardant/flame resistant fabric, contain washable/hygienic materials and (if they use electricity) are U.L. (Underwriters' Laboratories)-approved.
* Select toys to suit the age of the child.
* Avoid toys that shoot small projectiles.
* Don't give infants and toddlers toys with small parts that can be swallowed or lodged in their throats.
* Don't give electric toys with heating elements to children under 8.
* Inspect toys for infants and toddlers to make sure they don't have sharp edges or sharp points.
* Avoid crib toys with cords or strings in which small babies might become entangled and strangled. Never hang toys with long strings, cords, loops or ribbons in cribs or playpens where children can get caught.
Steorts said consumers who find unsafe toys in stores should contact her agency immediately on its toll-free hot line, 800-638-CPSC.