If you want to check the pulse of shopping habits this stingy holiday season, you can do far worse than strolling through Amazon.com's (NASDAQ:AMZN) bestseller lists.

I do this every year. It's initially a selfish practice. I'm just trying to score the hottest deals on the site that temporarily bubble up to the top. However, over time, you do get a pretty clear snapshot of the winners and losers long before the actual merchandise makers post their results.

Here are a few things I've noticed.

1. Netbooks are the hot hardware item this season
Last year it was Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) MacBooks that were dominating the site's computer bestseller list. This year, it's all about the netbooks. In fact, the first MacBook doesn't even make the list, as of this morning, until you get past nine hotter selling netbooks.

Whether Apple should be in the netbook business is hotly contested, even among us in Fooldom. The margins aren't there. Netbooks are lighter yet inferior in many ways. However, it's becoming clear that there will be more netbooks under the tree than MacBooks this year. When Apple announces soft laptop sales over the holidays, just remember that Amazon was tipping you off a month earlier. 

2. The hot toy this year is … Hyper Dash
The perpetual chart-topper last year was JAKKS Pacific's (NASDAQ:JAKK) EyeClops Bionic Eye. JAKKS is holding up well this season, with its infrared goggles holding steady between third and fifth on the list whenever I've checked. However, the consistent chart-toppers have been Wild Planet's Hyper Dash and Blokus Classic by Educational Insights.

That doesn't leave a lot of room for the publicly traded giants like Mattel (NYSE:MAT) and Hasbro (NYSE:HAS). In fact, the big surprise here is that Mattel's new Elmo doll -- Elmo Live -- is a dud after all of the hot Tickle Me Elmo dolls in recent years. Mattel's Elmo is resting forgotten at No. 83 this morning, despite selling at a 9% discount.     

3. Hard times for software
Computer software is the other category I routinely check, and it's been a no-doubter this year. Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Office Home and Student 2007 is the top dog, no doubt spurred by recent price cuts. The program was selling for less than $70 at many retailers, including Amazon during the Black Friday weekend, but is still selling briskly here for less than $90. Adobe (NASDAQ:ADBE) was last year's winner, though its Photoshop Elements 7 is hanging tough this morning in second place.

4. The biggest lesson of all
The most important takeaway from the Amazon bestseller lists is that they are good gauges, but not perfect ones. We don't know the actual volume of goods being sold, just how certain items rank within Amazon's virtual storefront.

It provides relative metrics but not the absolute ones that will ultimately dictate a company's results. So, yes, what I am saying is that if Apple does somehow deliver healthy MacBook growth over the holidays, all it means is that netbooks are everywhere.

Other chapters in the Amazon story that never ends:

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.