Spoiler alert: It looks like the role of new "Star Wars" heroine Jyn Erso is going to be a big one this year—for both helping to save the Galaxy by stealing Death Star plans and generating big bucks for toy retailers.
Last year there was a backlash when female protagonist Rey was suspiciously absent from the majority of the early marketing of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens." So stores are treading very carefully this year and preaching a message of inclusion with their marketing ahead of the Dec. 16 release of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story." Though some Star Wars merchandise has already made top toys lists, consumers won't be able to purchase anything until Sept. 30, when product hits stores. Target and manufacturer Hasbro have both said that Jyn, who is played by Felicity Jones, will be featured in toys.
"Baby will not be left in the corner this year," said Chris Byrne, a toy industry consultant and content director for TTPM (Toys, Tots, Pets & More). "There's a heavy emphasis on vehicles, action play and all the characters."
A year ago, retailers claimed the shroud of secrecy around "The Force Awakens" plot made it impossible to include Rey in any toy releases before the movie's December unveiling. Outrage over the character's omission from products such as a figurine pack and a Monopoly game spawned the hashtag #WheresRey on Twitter, and Pawtucket, Rhode Island-based Hasbro made a "running change" early this year to include the character in Monopoly.
"Young boys will embrace the female hero in a way they wouldn't have 30 or 40 years ago," said Mr. Byrne. "Today's boys will actually look at a female hero and say, 'Yeah, she can be powerful.' Their masculinity is not threatened."
This year, marketers have wised up. In early September, 1,800-unit Target debuted a Star Wars-centric digital and social ad campaign from Deutsch that included real-life fans—the first is a young girl, and three of the four are female. After strong sales results from the franchise last year, Target is anticipating similar results and planning accordingly with product and marketing.
"Guests can expect to find their favorite characters, including Jyn Erso, who Disney and Lucas films have identified early on as a lead," said a Target spokeswoman. She noted that last year, "the roles of characters in 'The Force Awakens' were kept close to the glove to not give away any of the plot line."
Hasbro is putting Jyn front and center in its toy mix. She'll be included in the manufacturer's "Go Rogue" series, a playset, Nerf blaster and multiple figurines, the brand's spokeswoman said, noting the character is "compelling."
Walmart, which recently named an electronic R2D2 to its list of top toys picked by kids, will host "Star Wars" events at select stores this month. Toys "R" Us will also hold events, including a 12:01 a.m. celebration on Sept. 30, the day "Star Wars" merchandise goes on sale, with exclusive giveaways, in order to get people into stores. Kohl's, which already got a boost from the viral giggling of the now-famous "Chewbacca Mom" earlier this year, is providing a similar selection of merchandise—including masks—to what it stocked last year.Much like previous years, the "Star Wars" franchise is alive and well and is expected to again be a blockbuster for the retail industry. Experts predict the Disney-owned brand to attract more brick-and-mortar visits than other products, since both adults and children will want to see store displays and experience events. That could be beneficial to stores struggling to compete against e-commerce giant Amazon, for example.