Christmas '97: Laser guns and bar codes put power of choice in children's hands

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The Independent Online
Children may soon be able to send a 'gift list' to Father Christmas by using a laser gun on bar codes of toys. But what will it mean for parents? Kim Sengupta explains.

Just writing to Santa may no longer be enough. Juvenile shoppers could soon be presenting a list of demands for Christmas backed up by the statistical data of the bar code.

The Toys 'R' Us chain of shops has already adopted the idea in its 600 outlets in the United States. Executives say it is likely to be introduced in this country in the near future. Market testing was first carried out in the US last year. Children, guided by adults, are allowed to range freely through stores zapping the bar codes of toys they want. The information is picked up by the shop's computer, and the manager then presents accompanying adults with the list for their approval. The printout can be kept to give friends and relations.

A spokesman for Toys 'R' Us in Britain, owned by the US company, said: "We know the project has been a success in the US, and any development there is closely monitored over here ... there is every possibility the concept may be used over here."

The marketing benefits for the chain are far reaching. In a fiercely competitive business, the company is building up a valuable databank which can be used for normal trading, as well as birthdays and Christmas. In Britain, some toy retailers say the bar code system, can alleviate queues, but also cause phenomena such as "toy rage" triggered by the demand for popular items such as the Teletubbies and Spice Girl dolls.

Even in the US there has been a mixed reaction. Gary Cross, a historian at Penn State University, said: "There was a time when a toy mattered in terms of the relationship between parent and child or grandparent and child. Over the years the culture of children and adults' memories of their own childhood has grown further and further apart."

Father Christmas can rest assured if he is having problems getting hold of Teletubbies - children would rather have pens, pencils and crayons, according to his elves at the Post Office, writes Glenda Cooper.

A survey of children's wish lists sent to Santa Claus through the post found writing implements beat the Teletubbies into second place. The Spice Girls, who snatched the Christmas number one song spot from the Teletubbies this week, came in at number five among girls.

Tamagotchi cyber pets, bicycles and Sony Playstations also cropped up frequently in the 750,000 letters sent to Father Christmas care of Reindeerland. The longest list was from a nine-year-old boy in Kent who asked for 1,453 presents.

top 10 for boys

Pens

Teletubbies

Action Man

Bicycles

Playstation

Cyber pets

Star Wars figures

Football kit

Buzz Lightyear

Lego

top 10 for girls

Pens

Teletubbies

Cyber pets

Barbie dolls

Spice Girl dolls

Bicycles

Secret diaries

Baby New Born

Playstation

Barney

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