Shopping around for toys can save you a sackful of money, according to a local consumer group.
In a survey of prices conducted Nov. 10-15 of 144 toys at 33 stores, the Consumer Affairs Committee of Greater Washington, sponsored by the Americans for Democratic Action and Public Voice, found that identical items cost more than twice as much at some stores as at others. Here are three examples:
* "Cabbage Patch Book" ranged from $6.99 at the Penney's store in Fair Oaks Mall to $2.97 on sale at Kids Discount in Laurel -- a difference of 135 percent.
* "Michael Jackson Doll" was $21.99 at Murphy's 12th and G streets NW Washington store, compared with $9.84 at Toys R Us at Baileys Crossroads -- a difference of 123 percent.
* "G.I. Joe Hovercraft" was $39.95 at FAO Schwarz, Mazza Gallerie, compared with $18.96 at Best Products, Bethesda -- a difference of 111 percent.
"Best Products and Evans the catalogue stores continue to lead the market with the lowest prices," according to the report written by the price committee, which was headed by Irene Rosenbloom and Pat Roth. "When compared with each other, the difference for 23 toys was $9.45 or 3 percent, with Best leading slightly," the women said.
"Next lowest are the toy discount stores -- including Toy Wizard, Toys R Us, Juvenile Sales and Kids Discount," Roth said. "Lowest in that group in a 35-toy market basket survey was Toy Wizard, which is a new store in Gaithersburg."
Following that are Bradlees, Kmart and Zayre, she said.
Roth said there was a "fair jump in price" between the regular discount stores and the toy specialty stores -- such as Lowen's, Sullivan's, Toys 'n Toys, Toys Etc., Kay-Bee, K&K and FAO Schwarz.
"FAO Schwarz, of course, was the highest," Roth said.
Schwarz's prices are higher, store officials have said in the past, because it is not a discount store and "doesn't do loss leaders" (price products low to attract shoppers who may buy other items while they are in the store).
Prices at the stores may have changed since the consumer survey because of store promotions and sales starting and stopping.
Roth said that the consumer committee tried to choose toys that were predicted to be especially big sellers in the Washington area market.
In making its selections, the committee monitored television and newspaper advertisements, consulted with major local toy merchants, read toy industry publications and visited the industry's toy fair in New York. In analyzing the results of its price survey of Washington area stores, the committee concluded that suburban shoppers have an advantage over shoppers in the District of Columbia.
"In the suburbs, there are a variety of well-stocked stores with low prices from which to choose," she said. "However, in the District, prices are higher and there are now fewer stores that carry toys, since Sears on Wisconsin Avenue has eliminated its toy department."
The committee said that District stores that carry toys are not as well stocked with the surveyed toys as those stores in the suburbs.
"We tried to compare prices between the six D.C. stores, Hecht Co., Woodward & Lothrop, Bargaintown, G.C. Murphy's 12th and G Street and Wisconsin Avenue, and McBride's, but found that they did not have one toy in common," the report said.
The toy committee said that discount and toy specialty stores are well stocked, except for a few very popular items, such as Transformers, GoBots, Cabbage Patch Kids, Preemies, Koosas, G. I. Joe toys (1984), Care Bears and Rainbow Ponies.
Because there is a short supply of such toys, shoppers should check with the store to find out if a particular item is available, the committee said.
Doug Thomson, president of the Toy Manufacturers of America, a New York-based trade group, said that toy shortages reflect stronger-than-expected consumer demand as well as a failure on the part of some retailers to anticipate what would be popular toys.
"When that happens, they may tell their customers it is because they can't get the toys from the manufacturers," he said, "when in fact it is because they didn't order enough."
The toy report can be ordered for $5 by calling the ADA at 659-5930 or writing the ADA, c/o Public Voice, 1001 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20036; it offered these shopping tips:
* Be sure you buy the toy, not the box. Insist on seeing the contents of an expensively boxed toy. Most good merchants keep a sample on display so customers know that the contents are the same as the picture on the box.
* Consider the cost of "add-ons," such as batteries and accessories, when selecting toys.
* Consider quality when selecting a toy. Toys that break easily are not a bargain, and they may be dangerous.
* Give "play value" top priority when selecting a toy. "Play value" is not only the potential hours of pleasant play but also the way in which it can enhance the child's development.
* Remember that TV ads glamorize toys, sometimes beyond recognition.