Disney hits toy stores first

A model Storm Trooper on display at the Walt Disney store in New York last Friday.
A model Storm Trooper on display at the Walt Disney store in New York last Friday.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Mass media company hopes to win consumers with fancier gadgets ahead of its next Star Wars movie

NEW YORK • The latest Star Wars has not bombarded cinemas yet, but a fight to win over consumers is being waged - in toy stores - now.

Two years after a US$150 (S$203) rolling robot captured attention, Walt Disney is betting fans will shell out the same price for the droid's dark, evil twin.

On the big screen, BB-9E will face off against the beloved BB-8 in a new Star Wars instalment in December from Disney's movie studio.

The toy is part of a collection of fancier gadgets Disney expects will help give its flagging consumer products business a boost.

Get ready for a US$200 goggles- and-lightsaber combo developed by Disney and Lenovo Group that lets customers duel and play holographic chess; US$200 fighter drones from Propel; and a US$100 programmable robot kit from littleBits Electronics.

"These are all products at a higher price point that we believe are going to help us continue to expand our audience," said Mr Jimmy Pitaro, chairman of Disney's consumer products arm.

Disney is pulling out all the stops for its new line of products tied to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which hits theatres on Dec 15.

The roll-out has included early reveals of new characters, a big focus on high-tech toys and product releases at 20,000 stores around the world last Friday.

Mr Pitaro's division, the largest entertainment licensing operation in the world, could use a shot in the arm. Sales peaked with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in late 2015 and they are down 15 per cent in the first nine months of this fiscal year.

Other kid-friendly films such as Beauty And The Beast and Cars 3 have failed to deliver the sales surge of predecessors Frozen (2013) and The Force Awakens.

Disney, like other companies, has come to realise that modern consumers are looking for experiences as much as things.

This year's marketing effort includes an augmented reality function on the Star Wars app that lets people see images of star fighters in the sky above 20 worldwide sites like the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Hollywood sign.

It also lets shoppers track virtual images in stores.

There is also an ongoing push for women characters, in particular Last Jedi heroine Rey.

Hasbro this year released Forces Of Destiny, an all-female line of US$22, 28cm poseable figures based on Star Wars characters that are also featured in short films viewable online. 

"We're basically partnering with Hasbro to create a new category," Mr Pitaro said. "It's not really a doll and it's not really an action figure, it's what we're calling adventure figures."

Whether all these moves allow Disney to top its previous Star Wars merchandise sales and reignite growth in its consumer products business remain to be seen.

The Force Awakens was the first Star Wars film in 10 years, so there was a lot of pent-up demand from longtime fans for new items. The Last Jedi is the third movie in three years.

"It's ludicrous to think this will do the same volume levels as Force Awakens, but it will still be quite a huge number," said Mr Marty Brochstein, who heads industry relations at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association. "Most companies would love to have Disney's level of success."

Most would like to have customers like Mr Harrison Tanji and his wife Danielle Jack, who were among the 30 people waiting in line at a Toys R Us store in Los Angeles at midnight last Friday, when the new products were made available for sale.

They spent US$240 picking up a Porg plush toy, Funko bobblehead and several Luke Skywalker action figures to add to a collection that already fills a room in their house.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 04, 2017, with the headline 'Disney hits toy stores first'. Print Edition | Subscribe