If trying to track down a Teletubby toy this Christmas drives you crazy, just spare a thought for the poor shop assistants, says Ann Treneman.
It was supposed to be a jolly television interview that Santa himself would be proud of. The idea was to get Gerry Masters of the British Association of Toy Retailers to stand in the middle of a store, hold up a few Teletubbies, and chat a bit about the spirit of giving this Christmas season. Sound simple? "The store was horrified! They said there would be a riot and that I would be mobbed by mums grabbing the toys!" says Mr Masters.
In the interest of safety and public order the interview had to be cancelled and, really, Mr Masters should have known better. For this is the year when toy rage - the uncontrollable desire of a parent to act like their two-year-old while in pursuit of a toy - has come into its own. Last year the object of desire was Buzz Lightyear, earlier this year it was virtual pets and now it's Teletubbies. And if you think this is a story driven by hype, then head into any toy store and watch the grown-ups. As they say in children's books, it's not a pretty sight. "I've heard some people say that their child is dying and that they must get this toy and then it turns out that they are lying. The child isn't dying at all!" said one spokesperson. "It really is shameful, shameful behaviour."
People say that today's parents just do not know how to say no to the kids. They don't have time to play with their children so the toy has become all important. The parents say that television is to blame. As for the television, don't even try to talk sense to Tinky Winky, Po, Laa Laa and Dipsy. But it does makes sense that if you live in a rat race, eventually you start to act like a rat. "Last year the Buzz Lightyear craze got to the point where people were flying to Florida from New York and having it couriered to Britain," says Mr Masters.
"It's becoming a macho thing. You can dine out on the story for months. The Americans call them `destination products' and that means that people make a trip to a store specifically for that product and nothing else." So what does it look like from behind the till when a Destination Shopper bears down on you? There are tales of flying objects, tears and strong language. "One of our staff had a clock thrown at him," said Barry Eldridge of The Entertainer group. Malina Patel of Toys Toys Toys in Swiss Cottage in North London says that men are the worst. "You should hear their language. I wonder what they are like as fathers if they'll speak to me like this."
Perhaps, I thought, they would be better behaved outside the M25. At The Entertainer in Southampton, I found Stephen Shepherd, who seemed born to manage a toy shop. He is 25 and admits to having three virtual pets and one Teletubby. The latter are in such short supply that even he had to get his Laa Laa at Argos but then traded it, via the personal ads, for Po.
"This is it. This is what it is all about!" he says, pulling Po out of a plastic bag that stays inside his desk, inside his office. "I couldn't take it on to the shop floor." This is clearly true, as on the shop floor there are several parents who admit to making careers out of buying their children the set for Christmas. None, it must be said, are swearing, shouting or kicking. But Stephen Shepherd has no illusions about the ugly scenes to come as the dolls continue to be rationed: "Some people shout. Some burst into tears. You get people who lose their rag and start to swear."
So far he has not seen any actual violence and Mr Shepherd wants to keep it that way. This year he has come up with a "toy rage" course for his staff and a flip chart with lots of facts to convince them that it is worth being empathetic to the customer who is accusing them of being a cheating little liar. "For every customer who complains, twenty six will not. Each customer that complains will tell between eight and sixteen people," he says. So if you resolve the problem, you save a lot more than one customer.
But how do you deal with a toy rager? Listening, empathy, information, he says. Never be false or condescending and never, ever start arguing. "Once you are in an argument," he says, "you will not get out and you won't make them happy."
He sees toy rage as part of the larger frustration of Christmas shopping. In shop after shop, people have to queue and wait to be served. Sometimes, they snap. "People will just accuse you of all sorts of things," he says. "If you say you haven't got the toy, they insist that you must have it somewhere. They immediately think you are trying to lie and hide something. But of course you are not, because we are here to sell."
But surely that is being naive, Mr Shepherd. For you cannot sell what you do not have. The only place many Destination Shoppers will be going over the next month is frustration city. Mr Masters has had an idea for this: free stress balls for all customers, flak jackets and dart guns for all staff. It's the kind of joke you shouldn't make in a store full of toy ragers, though.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies