"That's where we really start to look at what's out there," Harnisch said. "We place our big bets starting in January."
But in these uncertain economic times, analysts say, the bets haven't been big enough. Many of this year's top contenders — the Furby Boom, LeapPad Ultra, Big Hugs Elmo — are riffs on last year's big sellers.
"In tough times like this, companies are less likely to try risky new projects," Johnson said. "You'll see a reliance on things they know will work: superheros and retro toys, things we've seen before."
The lack of a hit children's movie this fall has also watered down the pool of options, said Douglas Gowin, the Santa Claus at the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. Last year, he received a steady stream of movie-inspired requests: Spider-Man, X-Men, the Avengers. Not anymore.
"This year, there's not really anything like that," said Gowin, a Santa of 20 years. "It's more of the good old toys: bicycles, baseballs, footballs."