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Toys 'R' Us banks on strategy

Holiday results will help chain decide its fate

NEW YORK -- With one week left until Christmas, customers can still find some of the season's hottest toys, like Dora's Talking House and Bella Dancerella, a ballet kit, at Toys "R" Us Inc. But it's a different story at rival Wal-Mart Stores Inc., whose inventory of many of the popular items has been depleted.

"We are in great stock with all the hot toys . . . This is when we shine," said Kathleen Waugh, a spokeswoman at the Wayne, N.J.-based retailer, which went back to its toy suppliers last month to reorder some of the surprise hits this season.

They include Spin Master Ltd.'s Aquadoodle, a coloring mat with water-filled pens, and Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price's Magic Hair Fairytale Dora, a 15-inch doll that comes with a butterfly wand.

With its future dependent on the outcome of 2004 holiday shopping, the nation's second-largest toy seller behind Wal-Mart has been determined not to let the Bentonville, Ark.-based discounter spoil its Christmas as it did last year, with earlier and heavier sales than in the past. In August, Toys "R" Us, whose profits plunged more than 60 percent last year, said it was considering selling its toy business; how it fares this holiday season will be a big factor in its decision.

To help reverse its fortunes this holiday season, Toys "R" Us has stocked its shelves earlier than it did last year, has more exclusive merchandise, and has been beating the discounters on price, at least in November. Over the last week, Toys "R" Us's prices have been slightly higher than the discounters.

However, while Toys "R" Us has an advantage on selection, it is too soon to tell whether it will bring home a healthy quarter. Last year, Toys "R" Us wound up with a disappointing holiday season even though it still had the hot toys at the end of the season and good customer service.

Sean McGowan, an analyst at Harris Nesbitt, an investment research firm, said that customer traffic will be the deciding factor in how Toys "R" Us fares this year, but he believes that this year "should be better." He noted that this season customers have gotten the message that Toys "R" Us is competitive on price and has the toys that shoppers want.

McGowan said that based on last week's spot check of 25 hot toys, Toys "R" Us was in stock on 68 percent of the items on his list. That compared with 56 percent for Target and 48 percent for Wal-Mart.

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