( Toys, Hobbies and Crafts- July 1980)The early box office returns are in, and from most predictions, it looks like The Empire Strikes Back is a solid hit, if not a repeat of the tornado of success that swept the country three years ago.
No one expected an exact replay, but the pending sequel was for months an oasis of optimism for retailers in a year of financial uncertainty. Although cautious and conservative in picking up new SKUs, retailers still believe there's toy store magic in Star Wars. "The new movie is probably going to be the greatest movie ever," says Ben Franklin's Jerry Dickson, "but is it going to sell toys?"
That's the question on most industry minds right now. Dickson believes the movie can be the "greatest," yet not make it across retail counters. "Black Hole was a good movie, but it didn't sell toys. Star Trek was a tremendous box office hit, but if didn't necessarily sell toys, although some were solid. 'Buck Rogers' has been the best seller 'til now, and has sold a few toys, but not to the magnitude the original Star Wars did."
It's still early to chart the effects of the sequel in secondary and fringe markets, says Child World's Bruno Ferretti. "The movie opened recently here, and apparently is a success. It's a little early yet for retail because it hasn't gotten to the suburbs, and it takes time to make an effect. " Yet, he says, "We're pretty optimistic about it."
That optimism is tempered with caution and is shared by Dickson and other retailers.
"If anything, space is not good," says Ferretti. "That category had a great deal of activity and promotion, with 'Galactica,' Black Hole and Star Trek a year ago. It hasn't performed as well. We expect it to level off a bit. The Star Wars sequel may create a resurgence, but only in Star Wars merchandise, not a spread-out effect." G.C. Murphy's Don Williams says, "Space has been very soft right now, but I understand there's been very strong acceptance on the new Kenner Star Wars releases." Murphy's no longer separates Star Wars merchandise into individual sections, as they did in years past, and other retailers, like Boscov's, have followed suit.
At presstime, the film hadn't opened in Albuquerque, where Toys By Roy is headquartered, but Mike Stetson says, "Star Wars is improving (already) over the first of the year. I hope for a big increase after the movie opens here." K & K Toys' Doug Perry says, "The only thing in space right now is The Empire Strikes Back. The other space - 'Buck Rogers,' Star Trek, and 'Battlestar Galactica' - are just not selling anymore. Everyone's been waiting for The Empire Strikes Back for the past six months. In our Washington stores, where the movie opened, there's been good reaction." And Perry reflects the optimism in his SKU orders of Star Wars merchandise: "We bought just about anything Kenner let us buy . We took whatever they allocated to us."
Other retailers, though hopeful, have not been as generous with open to buy or shelf space. "We're taking a rather soft approach to space," says Dickson of Ben Franklin. "The bulk of The Empire Strikes Back sales will fall in action figures, as they have in the past. They're the dolls that boys have really gone into. (But) we're not going after sci-fi at all this year. To a degree, it's too risky, and we can better put the SKUs into die-cast and plush." The feedback on the sequel has been "phenomenal, just unbelievable," according to product manager Tom Clark at Kenner. The company has worked out a three-year program for the toys, planning for 1982 at this time. Not all items will continue through every year of the saga, Clark says. The always-popular action figures will number 31 by next year, with 10 new TESB additions, and probably all will carry over. "We will monitor the sales numbers of various items, and make sure we don't back up the inventory on some that are not as popular as Darth Vader," says Clark. Nearly all Star Wars SKUs have been carried over from last year. "The reason we carried it all this year is the sequel didn't come out until the middle of the year, and many lines applied to this year's movie," explains Clark. Kenners' three-year program will identify most SKUs with The Empire Strikes Back, while cleaning out fringe items and producing fresh product for '82. "We're trying to keep it clean in product for '82," Clark says. "We don't want it to back up."
Some product pertaining to installment three of the saga, The Jedi's Revenge, may be introduced in '82, although the movie is not due to open until '83. Kenner is also polishing up its product development and shipping schedules. "We learned a lot about filling orders," says Clark. For this year, "A lot of The Empire Strikes Back products are late shipments because of the confidentiality of the movie. We were limited in information from Lucasfilm, and we can't get the movie models before they're done with them.
"Now, for '81, we've been able to accelerate the development process by five months. As a result, all items for '81 will ship before May, and all but one before March." Although Clark believes the process could be speeded up even more, it's a great improvement over shortage problems in the past.