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Filling Santa’s shelves with hot holiday items

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Dwight and Sharon Byers began thinking seriously about Christmas way back in July.

That’s when the couple, co-owners of Academic Toolbox in Wenatchee, first started figuring which toys — what brands? how many? how soon? what price? — to order for the holidays, still about five months away.

And we started late this year,” said Dwight. “The earliest gift shows are held in March or April, which if you think about it” — and he does for a moment — “makes buying for Christmas nearly a year-round activity in the retail trade.”

Across the Wenatchee Valley, retailers have long ago predicted which items will top shoppers’ lists this holiday season. “We’ve already figured out what’ll probably be the year’s must-have gift,” said Tom Kallas, owner of Hooked on Toys in Wenatchee. “Well, at least we’ve given it our best shot.” (Learn his choice in the accompanying “Hot Holiday Picks” article starting on Page 22.)

It’s one of a retailer’s most important decisions of the year, said Nalini Paton, co-owner of Arlberg Sports in Wenatchee. “You look for innovation, you look for uniqueness, you look for a good price point,” she said. “And then you take a leap and hope you’ve guessed right.”

Sure enough, state records show November and December as top months for taxable sales in Chelan and Douglas counties, said Nick Gerde, finance director for the City of East Wenatchee and a watchdog of spending across the region.

Fourth quarter sales in 2011 topped $140.8 million in Douglas County, $337.6 million in Chelan County and $182.8 million in Wenatchee.

The National Retail Federation, the nation’s largest retail trade group, said it expects sales in November and December this year to jump 4.1 percent from last year to top $586.1 billion. That’s the smallest predicted increased since 2009, when the recession stymied holiday spending nationwide for only a 0.3 percent rise from the previous year.

This year’s estimate takes into account consumers’ uncertainty over the presidential election and future job and income growth, said NRF president Matthew Shay.

At Academic Toolbox, holiday sales can account for 40 percent or more of the store’s annual revenues, said Dwight Byers. “So we’re careful when we invest in a Christmas item.”

Before placing a toy order, Sharon said, the couple takes into account not only the hottest national trends — such as Kendama, the widely popular cup-and-ball game — but also the quality and exclusivity of the toy line.

We’re a mom-and-pop operation,” said Sharon, “so we try not to carry what every chain store in America is carrying. We’re hoping to be able to offer something different to our customers.”

This year, said the Byerses, holiday shoppers should check out the French-designed Corolle baby dolls, which are soft-bodied and durable with racks of available accessories (clothes, strollers, toys).

Other top items include the wooden line of Thomas the Tank Engine toys (“very high quality,” said Sharon), trucks and tool sets made by Green Toys out of recycled milk cartons and Nanoblocks, sets of Lego-like miniature building blocks for projects such as the Empire State Building, the space shuttle and an aircraft carrier.

Sometimes the hottest toy for the holidays is a classic that’s been around for years,” said Dwight. “You study the trends, make a prediction, place your orders, set up displays for all kinds of the latest and hottest items.”

He laughed. “Then kids come in, and what do they want? An Etch-A-Sketch.”

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business. follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.