The season's traditional kickoff isn't quite here, but already some winners have emerged, from electronic book readers and hot pink netbooks to shimmery tops and the "snood," a hood-scarf hybrid that resembles a babushka.
Overall spending, however, is still tepid, as shoppers are choosy and focus on deals.
Here, a snapshot of what's hot _ and what's not _ so far this season:
The holiday spending outlook for clothing is muted as shoppers focus on necessities, but a few items have emerged as bright spots, such as boots and shimmery tops.
"Shoppers are being selective, adding items that can accessorize their wardrobes as opposed to buying full outfits," said Michael Londrigan, chair of the fashion merchandise department at LIM College, based in New York.
Another top seller is the snood, which Londrigan said is being offered at all prices. Luxury purveyor Burberry Group PLC has snoods in its trademark plaid for $295; The Limited is serving up a $39.50 version.
Londrigan also pointed out that shoes, including boots, have been strong because they can be an easy and inexpensive wardrobe update.
Overall, Londrigan noted that shoppers are sticking to replenishing their wardrobes with the basics as they worry about a weak job market. But for people who really want specific items, it's best not to wait.
Apparel stores, which were hit hard last year amid the financial meltdown, have slashed their inventories from a year ago, creating some shortages.
That was evident evident at Saks Fifth Avenue's shoe department, when a reporter heard a sales clerk tell a customer wanting a specific pair of $900 over-the-knee boots, "I'm not sure we still have sizes."
_ AP Retail Writer Anne D'Innocenzio
The runaway hit toy, of course, is Zhu Zhu pets, the $10 robotic hamster made by Cepia LLC that retailers have not been able to keep on shelves.
They're "smoking hot," said Needham and Co. analyst Sean McGowan. "Big hit for next year, too."
For girls, several new dolls have been selling well: MGA Entertainment's Moxie Girlz, Spin Master Ltd.'s Liv dolls and Mattel Inc.'s Barbie Fashionistas.
Across the aisle in boys, however, action figures, including Hasbro Inc.'s G.I. Joe action figures, have been slow sellers, and Transformers have slowed down from last year. Hasbro Inc.'s Nerf property continues to be popular, including its dart throwers called Nerf N-Strike.
Lego building sets sets including its Space Police and City sets also continue to sell well.
On the pricier side, Mattel's $80 Mindflex, which measures brain waves and uses them to push a ball through a course, has been selling out.
_ AP Retail Writer Mae Anderson
Nearly a quarter of shoppers plan to buy some kind of gadget gift this holiday season, making gizmos among of the most popular gift-giving categories, according to data from market research firm NPD Group.
So what's hot this year?
Some of the hardest-to-find gadgets are electronic book readers.
At Barnes & Noble, its Nook e-reader is backlogged and won't be available until early January because of strong demand. Customers who want to buy the $259 devices will get certificates to give during the holidays. Meanwhile, Sony Corp. said its $399 e-reader will likely be delayed.
Experts expect netbooks _ the scaled down laptops that have a similarly scaled down price tag _ to be top sellers this year. Some models have 12-inch screens, and keyboards that are more comfortable for adult users, and are typically sold for under $400. Walmart.com's CEO Raul Vazquez noted that brightly colored electronics like hot pink netbooks are popular.
Rounding out the list?
Activision's "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2," which sold more than 2.5 million copies worldwide in its first 72 hours of release earlier this month. The popular video game costs about $60.
_ AP Retail Writer Ashley M. Heher
Sales of home furnishings and furniture still remain sluggish, but there are a few bright spots, industry watchers say.
Mattresses have been faring well recently, following months of pent-up demand in the grim economy when shoppers delayed buying big-ticket items.
"This has been a good Christmas for mattress sales because a lot of retailers have been more promotional," says C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group, a research company.
J.C. Penney Co. has seen strong demand for its exclusive home line Cindy Crawford Style. Penney's Linden Street furniture is also selling well, company officials told investors during a recent call.
Macy's Inc. has seen an uptick in sales of housewares, furniture and mattresses. The retailer's exclusive Martha Stewart collection is also doing well, with strong sales of merchandise like enameled cast-iron pots, bedding and gingerbread man towels.
Homemade gifts and crafts also remain popular. Arts and crafts chain Jo-Ann Stores Inc. expects strong holiday customer traffic.
Sales of big-ticket items like beds, sofas and high-end appliances are still soft, says Craig R. Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy.
"Not a lot of people are buying $1,800 espresso machines," he said.
_ AP Retail Writer Betsy Vereckey