If you've ever been in a toy store around the holidays or on any Saturday afternoon, you can see the appeal of buying online: no kids running up and down the aisles, no frantic parents fighting over this year's impossible-to-acquire "it" toy. Buying toys online alleviates those hassles and introduces some major advantages over the toy stores' real-world cousins: search engines; easy product grouping by age range, brand name, and category; gift shipping directly to a recipient; and larger, lower-priced inventories.
Bringing to bear the site features, deep inventory, and faultless customer service we've come to expect when buying books or music, Amazon.com (www.amazon.com) quickly became the standard by which we judged other toy sites. No one pays attention to the details the way this company does. Send an Amazon.com gift to your nephew and if he returns it, Amazon.com will credit him, not you—a simple concept other toy stores would do well to imitate. eToys (www.etoys.com) is a strong number-two presence in this market, but its cluttered interface and lack of customer reviews leave it slightly lacking.
Gift services are essential when it comes to toy shopping, but only Amazon.com and eToys offer any. Both sites send beautifully wrapped gifts; eToys deserves kudos for letting you ship to multiple addresses per order as well as for its gift registries, kid wish lists, and event reminders, which ease your shopping even more.
Finding toys is easier online because of search engines, although your browsing experience isn't as satisfying. Using the Amazon.com Toys' excellent search tool, we found nine different Mr. Potato Heads but were unable to find him by browsing the site. Every toy site we reviewed could stand some improvement here. eToys' search returns had too many irrelevant hits; you could use a Mead notebook as a diary, but that's not exactly the point. ToysRUs.com (www.toysrus.com) breaks toys down into types—including subcategories, commendably—but the site won't let you browse according to age range.
Online toy shopping is an easy, attractive alternative to the masses—of toys and bellicose shoppers—you'll run into at your local toy emporium on any given day. At worst, you'll be subject to the same inventory vagaries as in the real world. But you'll never get stuck in a line, not even at this time of year.