NEW YORK (AP) — It's still summer for a few more days, but the holidays are already heating up at Toys R Us.
The largest U.S. specialty toy retailer outlined its plan for its busiest season Wednesday — including adding a "hot toy" reservation system, beefing up services like layaway and ship-to-store, and offering more exclusive toys like its $149.99 Tabeo tablet.
The holidays are crucial for retailers, particularly toy stores. The season can account for up to 40 percent of annual sales.
CEO Jerry Storch told reporters during an event at its Time Square flagship that the company is entering the season with lean inventories and strong profit margins. He added the same thing he says every year: that Christmas will come and parents will buy their children toys, no matter the economy.
"I can't predict the economy, but the last thing parents cut back on is toys," he said.
In the biggest change, Toys R Us, based in Wayne, N.J., will offer a "hot toy" reservation system starting over the next few days — when the company announces its 50 products on its annual 'hot toy' list. The reservation system will run through the end of October.
Toys must be reserved in stores — in order to avoid online scammers, Storch said — and customers have to put down 20 percent to reserve the toy.
Once reserved, customers will receive an e-mail notification when the order is available and have until Dec. 16 to pick it up in store. The idea is to help customers avoid a frantic last-minute search for hot toys — such as 2009's Zhu Zhu Pets stuffed hamsters and last year's Leapfrog LeapPad tablet — which often run out of stock later on in the season.
Services like the reservation program, and Toys R Us' layaway program and new ship-to-store program are important to draw customers into stores as Toys R U facing increasing competition from discounters and online retailers.
But at the event Wednesday Storch said the media overplays the danger of so-called "showrooming," where customers go into brick-and-mortar stores to browse wares but buy things cheaper online, and said that the best retailers will utilize both stores and e-commerce to reach consumers wherever there are.