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November 16, 2000|ABIGAIL GOLDMAN/

Last year there were more online toy stores than you could shake a mouse at, meaning tough competition and decent deals. This year, expect less of both as the "dot-com" shakeout has claimed many victims. But a savvy shopper still will be able to find a free shipping promise or a discount coupon.

Among the best sites is (, which has expanded to include gifts for older children, has an easy-to-use site, quick help and special features such as same-day shipping.

But it's hard to get away from the dominant forces, the newly combined Amazon-Toys R Us ( and online-only seller EToys ( If you don't know what you're looking for, choices can be harder to make at these sites because they sell just about everything.

Best site to shop: The combined or EToys. Even if you're looking to one of the higher-brow, specialized educational toy stores to make your purchase, check these sites first. They tend to offer good suggestions for specific toys and better descriptions and images of the products so you can better know what you're buying.

Best site to buy: It's tough to beat the Amazon-Toys R Us site, which combines Toys R Us' marketing muscle and long-standing manufacturer relationships with Amazon's top-notch Web site. Last year's complaints about centered not on the store's selection, but its inability to ship products on time.

Convenience: It was the easiest to find toys by typing in names, partial names or genres.

Customer service: What Amazon is known for--and does well.

Shipping and return policy: Generally quick turnaround--three to seven business days for items in stock, choice of shipping method--standard is $2.99 or 99 cents per pound for items shipped separately. It's nice that you can combine these products with others from anywhere within Amazon; however, it's annoying that with the combination, you can no longer return items to Toys R Us stores, only to via mail.

How it compares with offline: Online's better than offline any day. When you're shopping at the online store at midnight, no one is crying.

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