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Can't find the hot new toy? Blame the economy

NEW YORK -- Robotic toy hamsters, the latest Barbie dolls and stylish boots are disappearing from store shelves as holiday shoppers start to get serious. But don't confuse this with the days of Tickle Me Elmo.

Instead of a throwback to great buying binges of the past, the empty shelves are just another sign of bad times.

The shortages come from stores that are terrified of ordering too much and are keeping their inventories thin.

''I guess if you see it, you should get it,'' said Martha Frey, who was surprised when she couldn't find a specific style of boots in a popular size for her 17-year-old daughter recently at a Top Shop in Manhattan's SoHo district.

Shoppers are spending a little more these days, but they aren't going on buying sprees. Stores, remembering how Americans snapped their wallets shut last holiday season, didn't order big piles of merchandise in the first place.

The result, with seven weeks to go before Christmas, is that popular toys are already hard to find.

In fact, the holiday season's early hit -- the Zhu Zhu Pets hamster, an interactive mechanical rodent by Cepia Inc. that sells for $9.99 and is being compared to Furby a decade ago -- is almost impossible to nab.

Other toys that are already becoming hard to find include Mattel's Mindflex, which measures brain activity through a helmet, a Nerf dart thrower called Nerf N Strike from Hasbro Inc. and Barbie Fashionista, who can twist her hips and strike other poses.

''Stores just underordered across the board,'' said Jim Silver, an analyst at Timetoplaymag.com, who predicted shortages of the top 100 toys by early December. In a typical year, only the top 15 are in short supply that early.

In recent weeks toy makers have dispatched executives to China to make sure they get enough products to keep shelves full, Silver said. But production times can be long, and chances look slim that people who put off buying a coveted toy until Thanksgiving will be able to get one by Christmas.