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Hunting the Rare Zhu Zhu Pet

How to Buy The It Holiday Gift For Less
Where do you find what's hard to find?
I like to consider myself an expert at this, being a former investigative reporter with a fixation on garage sales. Did you know I once found a brand new, $150 Zegna tie for a lousy buck? Or a vintage 1940s snare drum for $20? With the holidays around the corner, finding that great item becomes all the more urgent. So, with Zhu Zhu Pets on the brain -- my 5-year-old girl really wannnnnnntttsss them for Christmas -- I set out to put some of my best-tested methods up for a comparison.

eBay: I've been a member of eBay for seven-plus years, and the auction site usually marks the first place I go when looking for anything because it's so exhaustive. The marketplace there bustles with people looking to give you the best price so they can get your business.

Advantages: Chances are, no matter what it is, from rare Converse All-Star sneaks to a favorite toy from your childhood, you can find it here.

Disadvantages: Sometimes you'll be buying used items you can't physically inspect, and prices fluctuate wildly, especially if you get caught up in bidding fever as opposed to the "Buy It Now" option. Also, watch those shipping fees, which vary greatly.
Keep in mind you'll also need a PayPal account to navigate most of the sales here, which works through your bank account. Setting up one takes minutes.

So you want Zhu Zhu Pets? Last time I checked, eBay had more than 9,000 entries. Wow! Zhu Zhu overload, anyone? So yes, it's going to take time to sift through all that info and find the best price.

But I rate eBay a 4 out of 5, especially if you can avoid getting caught up in that irrational auction madness -- and just buy direct from a seller. You can also ditch crowds and multitask while you search for that special find at your leisure.

craigslist: A lot of my friends swear by craigslist, but I have to say I'm not the biggest fan. I've heard stories of scams on the site -- not that other places don't have them -- and I find navigation in the website for Chicago not nearly as elegant and easy-to-read as I'd like. It looks like a cheapo web portal from the mid-'90s. But hey, I'm in the mood for cheap today, so why not give it another shot? Off to craigslist for Zhu Zhu Pets! And the verdict is?

You'll have better luck navigating craigslist, albeit less choices, if you start within the city where you live or happen to be visiting. In Chicago, I only found about 40 items for sale-not exactly a Zhu Zhu Pet bonanza. Some of the sellers lived as far away as Dwight and Aurora, a good drive of several hours from my city abode near Wrigley Field. Still, you could save shipping if the seller lives close by, and an in-person meeting leaves the door open for that "best of smart shopper" strategies: the laid-back haggle.

Example: "Hey, is there any wiggle room on that price? How about $25 bucks? That's only 5 percent off!"

I rate craigslist a 3 out of 5, because you have to work harder to see what you're buying, and it's tougher to check out the trustworthiness of the seller than on eBay.

Overstock.com: This web site, which also features an eBay-like auction nook, offers a lot of bargains, but this year, not a Zhu Zhu Pet was stirring. I searched globally in the site and within the toy department and came up absolutely empty-handed. Still, no Zhu Zhu, no cry: I like what Overstock.com offers in terms of helping you find bargains in a swath of areas that represent your typical department store shop. So if you have some flexibility, you could go for an Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii instead ... though in my case, I'm not about to risk five years of therapy for my daughter because I came home Zhu Zhu-less.

Overstock.com rates a 2 out of 5 in my book -- not the place to find my find, but there's enough here to make me feel like scripting some note to my daughter about Santa having an even better gift idea than hers.

Hitting the ground running: In a virtual world, nothing beats a little fresh air, exercise on foot and communion with one's fellow humans, righty? Eh. Shopping season also brings out the nastiness in people, and going to a host of stores guarantees no positive reinforcement in terms of bags full of bargains. For this option to work you have to be cut from a certain cloth, the kind of person who loves wielding a shopping cart around tight corners like a dirt bike. And while you're at it, prepare to pay top dollar. Some stores know that once you get inside, you just want to find what you came there for, and won't give price a second thought. Others, such as Target, have some very nice deals ... but I've got to tell you that the Target in my Chicago neighborhood has the most insane parking lot I've ever seen, period. People drive demotion-derby style, like they're trying to get a last-second bet in for the daily double.

I rate hitting the ground running 2 out of 5, because if you're like me, time is the premium money cannot buy. Unless I either know an item is in stock, or I want to get some exercise by doing the pedestrian mall thing, I usually avoid this option. And did I say how much I hate driving to my local Target? Great for deals, bad for your wheels.

Finally, there's word of mouth. Any tenacious reporter knows you can get a lot more done putting a dozen people on the case as opposed to just yourself. So send out an email to your best shopping buddies -- and believe me, you know who they are. Tell them exactly what you are looking for and what you hope to pay; even a few leads rate as better than none. Another great source: hotel concierges. These people get paid to know just about everything, and the best ones can probably take a few moments to help steer you in the direction of Zhu Zhu heaven, or wherever you hope to land this holiday. They might even make a few calls to save you some time.

My rating? Well, this one's as much a wild card as the item you hope to snag. But in my mind, it's the most fun because it gets you in contact with eager, helpful people, and turns shopping into more of a game ... and less of a contact sport. And who knows? You single folks may even meet some cute concierges along the way, putting an extra happy in your happy holidays.

And so, I'll bet you're wondering who's gonna bring the Zhu Zhu love home to daddy, and his lovely daughter Genevieve. Chances are I can nail down exactly what I want -- and what I want to pay -- in about an hour. I can choose from hundreds of buyers, and pay a reasonable shipping fee.

Now then, if only I could buy me a guarantee that my daughter won't get bored of her electro-rodent by Dec. 26.

For Walletop.com and The Savings Experiment, I'm Lou Carlozo, fearless shopper and garage sale correspondent.

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