First battle in holiday toy wars: the Star Wars campaigns –

The nation’s three biggest toy sellers are counting on light sabers, Jedis and galactic storm troopers as they prepare to launch a particularly intense holiday sales battle this year.

Walmart, Target and Wayne-based Toys “R” Us all will launch campaigns next week to push sales of the first toys tied to the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” movie release on Dec. 18.

The stakes in this year’s holiday toy wars are highest for Toys “R” Us, which is entering the season with a brand-new chief executive, equity investors who are anxious to cash out, a heavy debt burden and a track record of sluggish sales. The Star Wars release in December, and the more than three months’ worth of prerelease hype, is expected to boost sales at all toy retailers, but it also gives Toys “R” Us more competition in a fight it can’t afford to lose.

Walmart today revealed its battle plan for Star Wars and holiday sales supremacy, saying it will start its holiday layaway program on Friday, two weeks earlier than last year. Both Walmart and Toys “R” Us are planning midnight toy release events for “Force Friday” — Sept. 4 — the first day that retailers are allowed to put Star Wars merchandise on the shelves. Toys “R” Us also plans to install Star Wars shops in each store, and devote at least 100 square feet in each of its stores to Star Wars merchandise.

Disney Co., which acquired Lucasfilm, and the rights to the Star Wars properties in 2012, is planning a global “unboxing” event in which different pieces of Star Wars merchandise will be unveiled around the world as the clock hits midnight in different time zones.

Industry experts are expecting the Star Wars impact to be huge.

“I would call this an unprecedented effort behind a film property,” said Martin Brochstein,senior vice president for industry relations and information for the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association. “Starting the rollout three months out, doing this global baton passing or New Year’s Eve-like rollout, from market to market, starting in Sydney, Australia, I’ve never heard of anything like it.”

Retailers like Walmart, Target and Toys “R” Us have to plan events like the midnight openings to “show that they are in the middle of the biggest crazes,” Brochstein said. “It’s something akin to bookstores opening up for the Harry Potter launches. Or when Apple rolls out a new phone.”

“It’s in large part image and marketing,” he said. “Is it going to move the needle on their bottom lines? No. It puts them in the middle of the conversation.”

The hope of the big three retailers, however, is that shoppers who come for the Star Wars hype will also buy other merchandise, and that will boost their bottom lines.

Walmart and Target significantly increase their toy offerings every year, starting in September and October, to increase the odds that families will do more of their general Christmas shopping at their stores. Toys “R” Us, which sells toys year round, tries to win at the holiday game by having better assortments and a better inventory position in the hot toys, due to its toy expertise and connections with manufacturers.

In recent years, Toys “R” Us and Walmart have tried to outdo each other with their toy layaway plans, seeing such enticements as longer layaway periods, free or low-fee layaway, and hot-toy guarantees as ways to get a larger share of parents’ holiday budgets.

Anne Marie Kehoe, vice president of toys for Walmart, said in a news conference to announce the expanded layaway that more toys are purchased on layaway than anything else at its stores.