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'Star Wars' toys create a buying frenzy

What’s next for ‘Phantom Menace’ collectors, and will the merchandise’s value go boom or bust?

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Steve Freeman

That loud whoop you heard Monday morning was the collective cheering of retailers and marketers nationwide, celebrating sales of ”Phantom Menace” merchandise — which began exactly at midnight. With typical military precision, George Lucas put a tight lid on the release of ”Phantom” products and threatened harsh sanctions against store owners who jumped Monday’s release date. Predictably, that turned May 3 into an event unto itself.

Toys ”R” Us sold 1.25 million units of ”Phantom” product nationally on that day, including 50,000 Lego sets alone. FAO Schwarz reported more than 1,500 people at its New York City flagship in the first three and a half hours of May 3, and each customer purchased an average of $100 worth of merchandise (you do the math). When all is said and done, ”Phantom” tie-ins will probably represent ”the single biggest event in the history of the toy business,” says industry analyst John Taylor, of Arcadia Investments, who predicts that sales will hit between $500 million and $1 billion by the end of the year.

As for early lessons, the most popular character is clearly the villainous Darth Maul: Action figures of the red-faced bandit flew off nearly every store’s shelves, and by 12:30 a.m., Darth Maul dolls had been posted for sale at Yahoo! Auctions online. (The starting bid for a $6.99 figure was $15.) Ballantine, which hit bookstores with four different covers for its ”Phantom” companion novel (first printing: 1.2 million), reported that the Darth Maul cover looked to be the hottest seller among kids and teens. And Hasbro, clearly aware of the horned one’s popularity, decided to make you-know-who the central image of all its ”Phantom” toy packaging. ”We looked at who was comparable to Darth Vader in terms of recognition and coolness,” says Hasbro VP Tim Hall, ”and that was Darth Maul.”

What’s next? Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Kentucky Fried Chicken launch fast-food tie-ins May 12, with Frito-Lay’s program coming soon after. Hasbro plans to introduce more than 150 additional items by Christmas. Buzz is already building for an interactive Yoda from Hasbro’s Tiger division, which will utilize Tiger’s Furby technology.

But a word of caution to the die-hard fans who emptied stores on May 3: ”If everyone decides these are going to be the most valuable things of the year and not open the boxes — something no one did 20 years ago — then these items are not going to be of much value,” says Terry Kovel, coauthor of ”Kovels’ Antiques & Collectibles Price List.” ”Don’t plan to pay for college by buying 200 of some doll.” Rats! Now what are we going to do with that crate of Obi-Wan Kenobi interactive banks? (Additional reporting by Rob Brunner, Clarissa Cruz, Gillian Flynn, and Will Lee)