By their Christmas windows shall you judge them. In the battle for the hearts, minds and war chests of the present-buying public, there is no clearer statement of a store's intent, or content, than its window display.
First stop on The TES trail to the ultimate Christmas grotto was Hamleys in London, the self-styled "finest toyshop in the world". And there, it has to be said, the search could have ended. For, in the window, one of the most captivating creations of all, Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, comes to life, glittering and sparkling with new-fallen snow, floating through the midnight sky in glorious 3-D with his pyjama-clad companion hanging on to his dressing-gown cord. Along the way, penguins watch spellbound from icy wastes and a group of snowpeople rejoice in an animated highland fling. If you're searching for the magic of Christmas, this is a good place to start.
Hamleys is fairly hot on magic. Barely three feet inside the doors there is not one magician but several. Marvin isn't only a magician; he's a showman as well.
"Do you play cards, Ryan," he asks an awed seven-year-old, who nods cautiously. "Poker, perhaps. Where's your wife? Left her in a hotel?" Ryan doesn't quite know what to make of this, but nods again. He is soon making cards appear in strange places and coins disappear into thin air. The group of onlookers applauds. "Ryan will soon be appearing in Las Vegas, assisting David Copperfield," says Marvin - a man for whom anything is possible, obviously.
This is a maxim that the furry-toy department has embraced with fervour, believing that anything that draws breath, real or imaginary, can be rendered in fur and stuffed. So we have London-Zoo-size pandas at Pounds 69.99, turtles at Pounds 11.99, packs of jungle cats from leopards to lions and tigers, any amount of marine life - dolphins, whales, even sharks (strange that someone thought sharks had a snuggle factor) - and my own favourite, a velveteen walrus at Pounds 12.99.
No one was buying any of these, though. What they were falling over themselves for was anything with wheels. It would have been simpler (and cheaper) to go outside and play with the traffic, but radio-controlled vehicles are completely irresistible. I can't drive, but I badly wanted my own McLaren Mp46 with a Honda engine (or I could have had a Williams Renault F-18). These are one-tenth the size of the real thing, and at Pounds 219 for the McLaren and Pounds 290 for the Williams, not far off their price tag. This counter was besieged by grown men all wanting to play at being Damon Hill.
At the other end of the scale, for pre-schoolers with the same obsession, Nikko has a range of radio-controlled vehicles, including a brightly coloured fire engine, with blinking lights and wailing siren, for Pounds 24.99.
The cavalcade continues with all manner of trucks, tanks and turbo-charged this, that and the other, all with huge tyres and nerve-shredding noises. There is even a potential road rager in the shape of the Greasepits Grunge Cycle, a radio-controlled thug with tattoos who looks as though he left Mad Max plastered all over the Thunderdome, for Pounds 29.99.
Scalextric is a hardy perennial available in a range of prices. Economy-minded enthusiasts can opt for the Micro, which has a simple track and a FerrariBennetton car combo at Pounds 31.99; those with bigger wallets can go for the Le Mans set, which costs Pounds 119.99 and boasts start-up revving, gear change and full-throttle sound effects. For that price, I would expect Murray Walker to talk me through the race in person.
But what about the girls? Fisher Price's Dress-and-Dream Vanity Unit will have many young things in a swoon and, as it's down from Pounds 79.99 to Pounds 40, is something of a bargain. This is for the six-year old and upwards, who thinks she's Patsy from Ab Fab. It has a full-length mirror, storage compartments, answerphone, glamour accessory set, fold-out vanity top and make-up tray, vanity stool with secret compartment (what for, I wonder. Bollinger?). Most important of all, the whole thing can be folded up and packed away when Patsy discovers she's Saffy after all. For the latter, there's a Fisher Price kitchen, complete with plastic pots, pans, sink, fridge, cooker and microwave, at a reasonable Pounds 34.99.
Barbie is one of Hamleys' best sellers and one for whom there is no incarnation too absurd. This year she is a bejewelled mermaid "with the longest hair ever". This is no exaggeration - there's yards of the stuff, all for Pounds 21.99. Then there's Song Bird Barbie, who has a winged friend the size of a Fokker Friendship that hangs off her hand precariously. When pressed, this will warble reedily, probably in alarm. Also Pounds 21.99. Better value is scuba-diving Barbie, who comes with aqualung and whale for Pounds 18.99.
Dolls for boys are always a bit hit-and-miss. None of those who took part in our tests (see opposite page) would be seen dead with one, and in the case of Ken, Barbie's companion, who could blame them. But Action Man is a different proposition. The new Action Man is a weighty fellow who feels as though he has been subsisting on a diet of anabolic steroids. The Action Man Collector's Edition, Pounds 40, should give supporters of a moral crusade in schools cause for alarm. This toy has a sophisticated and chilling arsenal of weapons, from grenades and sniper rifle to knives and what looks like a ground-to-air missile launcher. He comes in combat fatigues and it begs the question, what precisely are children going to learn playing with such a thing? Like Barbie, Action Man reinvents himself, so that you can keep paying through the nose for the same doll, equipped with a different costume, and, in Action Man's case, with a different selection of hardware with which to disembowel his opponents.
Also gruesome are the Street Sharks. At a recent conference on children's television, this cartoon series was denounced as unacceptably violent, featuring as it does a selection of murderous man-sharks with huge teeth and aggressive voices. But children love it and will probably adore their toy-shop representatives for Pounds 14.99 each. These feature glow-in-the-dark teeth and invite purchasers to "try me, I bite", which indeed they do if you pull back their dorsal fin. Pull back an arm and you end up with a fist sandwich. Charming.
But back to the shop windows. The Disney Store, also on Regent Street, is smartly tied to the release of 101 Dalmatians. Many children live for each new Disney movie and devour the merchandise that goes with it. So, there's a Dalmatian outfit (white fur, black spots, with hood attachment for face) for Pounds 29.99, and Dalmatians are plastered over just about everything else: mugs, stationery, such as the art set (paints in all colours, not just black and white) for Pounds 11.99, or a stocking-filling pencil-and-paper-clip set for Pounds 1.99. An intriguing variation on the nurses' uniform is the Dalmatian Vet Kit (Pounds 19.99). This comes in a robust plastic case and contains puppy food, stethoscope, multi-vitamins and puppy blood-pressure monitor. God preserve the nation's pets come Christmas morning.
The Disney Store cashes in on every celluloid hero and heroine in its repertoire, but it does it so well that it is hard not to be enchanted. There are masses of costumes for boys and girls. There are Cinderella's magic glass slippers for Pounds 9.99, which have a button in the sole that makes "a fairy-dust sound". (If you want to know what fairy dust sounds like, think of Tibetan monks chanting.) Or there's Cinderella's fairy godmother's wand, which lights up for Pounds 8.99. There is Pounds 2 off a personal favourite, the Hunchback of Notre Dame's sword (plastic, Pounds 9.99). This has sound effects that are activated if the sword connects with anything, so you can have a humdinger of a bout. Forget Quasimodo; I turned into Errol Flynn: take that, "clang", and that, "clang".
Back to the shopping, and Selfridges on Oxford Street. Disappointing windows this year: all fake Faberge eggs and fur coats, and too grown-up by half. Usually they are crowd-pullers (The Chronicles of Narnia and The Owl and the Pussy Cat were two vintage offerings from Christmases past). But this is of little consequence when you are here to see a Very Important Person.
The received wisdom when I was a child was that whatever the other doppelgAngers might claim, the real Santa Claus spent December in Selfridges. So, is he still there? With mounting anticipation I made my way to the third floor and the signposts to his grotto. This is disarmingly by way of women's lingerie, so my well-rehearsed response to, "And what would you like for Christmas little girl", changed pretty smartly from "a surf board, if it's not too much trouble", to "I'd like to be able to fit into one of those".
I knew it had to be the real Father Christmas because they have the barricades to prove it and a sign which reads, "Your wait for Father Christmas is one hour from here". I didn't get to see him, but I heard him, as he bade two young visitors farewell. The children emerged, eyes shining, from the exotic Christmas grotto, which is based on Russian fairytales. Here, Peter and the Wolf crouch in the snow opposite the magnificent Firebird, and puppets dance in Brown Bear Square. There is real magic here, and not just for the children.