Looking For Leia? May the Force Be With You

By Kathleen Day
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 1997; Page C01

Her classification is "human," her affiliation is the "Rebel Alliance" and her weapon of choice is a "blaster."

Princess Leia, as a lead character in the "Star Wars" trilogy now enjoying one of the biggest comebacks in movie history at theaters across the country, has become a big celebrity as a result of the films' re-release, with girls among her biggest fans.

But good luck finding her likeness on toy store shelves here or in other parts of the galaxy. Though other "Star Wars" action figures are brisk sellers, Princess Leia is by far the toughest to find, sending parents on otherworldly chases to satisfy their daughters.

"I started looking in January," said Linda McGruder of Silver Spring, who tried for two months to find a Princess Leia action figure for her 13-year-old daughter's birthday cake. "I went to every Toys R Us in Wheaton, Columbia, Laurel and Rockville. I went to Wal-Mart, Ames, Kmart. They just said that they just didn't have Princess Leia."

She finally found one, courtesy of a clerk at Kay-Bee Toys at Briggs Chaney Shopping Center in Silver Spring, who told her to call on Thursdays, when the toy shipments came in. She called each week, striking pay dirt last week, when a shipment included a Leia figure.

The reasons behind Princess Leia's scarcity, say toy industry analysts and executives, are that Lucasfilm Ltd. of San Rafael, Calif., which has the licensing rights to the "Star Wars" movies, and Hasbro Inc., based in Pawtucket, R.I., which has exclusive rights to make "Star Wars" action figures, vastly underestimated the interest girls would have in the movies and related merchandise, and how toy buying has changed in the 20 years since the first "Star Wars" film was released.

"You cannot make the assumption that manufacturers would have accurately predicted the increased appeal to girls this time around, because they didn't," said Victor Mandel, a toy industry analyst for Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York.

Mandel said toymakers increasingly want to tie toys to "established properties," such as successful movies, but this time were working on dated assumptions from the 1970s and early 1980s, when many more boys than girls were interested in "Star Wars"-related products. He said the film company is now negotiating licensing contracts for a new series of "Star Wars" movies, and "will have the chance to take into account the appeal of `Star Wars' to girls in the 1990s versus the 1970s."

Howard Roffman, vice president of licensing for Lucasfilm, agrees, though he would not discuss details about how marketing for upcoming movies will be handled.

"Our concern is how do we do right by our customer," Roffman said this week in a telephone interview. "We're clearly learning some things this time around in terms of demand among girls. We've been pleasantly surprised by the number of girls that are into `Star Wars.' "

Indeed, on a recent visit to a Kay-Bee store at Montgomery Mall in Bethesda, shoppers ignored the two dozen Tickle-Me-Elmos stacked prominently near the entrance as they headed toward the "Star Wars" display. A clerk was ripping open new shipments of "Star Wars" action figures in the hope of finding a Princess Leia or two.

Out of a dozen boxes, each filled with dozens of "Star Wars" action figures -- including R2-D2, Darth Vader and Chewbacca -- there were only three Princess Leia figures. They were snapped up on the spot at $6.99 each by eager buyers.

Roffman said the company, through Hasbro, plans to have more Princess Leia figures available by midsummer.

Meanwhile, FAO Schwartz, Toys R Us and other chains say Leia remains scarce, though they have plenty of the other 60 "Star Wars" characters. At Anglo-Dutch Pool & Toys in Bethesda, employees say they get 20 calls a day asking for Leia.

"Being a fanatic about the movie myself," said Steven Aarons, co-owner of Child's Play, a toy store in the District, "I would have shipped a different assortment mix than they did."

Analysts said this situation has arisen partly because the $1 billion market for action figures -- those little plastic replicas of movie and TV characters -- has long been dominated by demand from boys, who account for 80 percent of sales of such toys. But they said it also may be because the toys' producer, Hasbro, is known for marketing to boys, while its rival Mattel Inc., which makes Barbie dolls, is better known for its expertise in marketing toys to girls.

"If Mattel were making Princess Leia dolls, there would be plenty of them," said Madeleine Mamaux, an analyst for Fitch Investors Service L.P., a securities rating company.

Tim Hall, Hasbro's director of marketing and product development for "Star Wars" toys, said he doesn't believe Hasbro's focus is skewed toward boys, though he said the company has been surprised by the level of demand for "Star Wars" figures, especially Princess Leia.

"Girls' demand for Princess Leia has been higher, just as boys' demand for other figures has been higher than anticipated," he said, though he did not provide specific production numbers, saying that information is proprietary.

Still, Hall said the company has "anecdotal evidence that girl interest is high" and plans to increase production of all "Star Wars" action figures, "particularly mindful of Princess Leia."

Hall said interest in "Star Wars" is uniquely spread across boys and girls and that he wouldn't be surprised if girls who are fans of the movies broke tradition with a higher-than-usual interest in action figures -- which will be met with new action figure versions of Leia in June and August.

Lawrence Balter, a New York child psychologist who is a consultant to toy manufacturers, said he believes toymakers are getting better about "expanding the appeal" of popular toys to girls as well as boys.

"The next time the `Star Wars' people have a tie-in, I bet they will think twice about how they do it," he said. "If you are going to be an aggressive business, you will have to provide sex-stereotyped toys, but also things that have cross-sex appeal. You have to do both."

© 1997 The Washington Post Company