If you weren’t aware of it allow me to fill you in on a little secret: Star Wars is kind of a big deal. And with a brand new trilogy looming over the end of 2015, anticipating is continuing to build as we near a fresh trip into a galaxy far far away. And in what is turning into something of a tradition, toy stores across the world are playing off of that excitement. Last Friday was ‘Force Friday’, where stores opened their doors at midnight with fresh batches of previously unavailable toys based off of the upcoming movie. Australians were the first to get their hands on the products, but there is a larger story surrounding such an event that makes for some interesting analysis.
We live in a world where access to product is at an all time high. I can order just about anything I could possibly want and have it brought to my door. Hungry? I can have a pizza delivered. Need that obscure anime statue? I can get it posted from Japan. Can’t be bothered getting out of my trackpants to go to the local video store? I’ll just stream it online. It’s changing the way we live and operate, and affecting our society as a whole. I work in retail, I see the tangible effects online shopping has on the physical shopfront, and it’s only going to become more prominent as future generations grow up accustomed to online purchases and don’t come to expect a level of customer service in stores that previous generations had (I could write multiple pieces on where I see the future of retail going, but I’ll spare you the boring rant).
So why is it in the times we live in that people are willing to line up outside at midnight to get their hands on toys that they could easily just buy online?
The question is even more pertinent when you considered some of the backlash Force Friday received in the days that followed. Stores were quickly stripped of what stock they had, leaving many hunters disappointed or furious that they were unable to get what they were after. The Twitter hashtag #FarceFriday became a thing as people spent hours waiting outside (just days removed from winter here in Aus) only to see the sight of empty shelves once they were inside. It’s not even like the American event known as Black Friday, where shops have ridiculous markdowns that people apparently absolutely must have. These were just brand new toys, and in the case of some of the stock, shockingly expensive (as an on and off again fan of Lego, my interest in the smallest Force Awakens set “Rey’s Speeder” was destroyed when I saw the $40 price tag at a local shop). I get that Star Wars has a fanatical group of supporters, and I also get that midnight releases of games aren’t unusual. But midnight launches for toys for a movie that hasn’t even been released yet seems to make little sense at first glance.
The very concept of a midnight release plays into the notion that there is value in being one of the first to get your hands on a product. Especially for Australians, who has their Friday arrive earlier than many of the other countries running the event, they had the chance to own a Kylo Ren Lightsaber before Americans could even step foot in the store. It’s the same reason upcoming lego figures and sets that get snuck out of the factories (or taken by store employees before they’re put out on the shelf) can fetch astronomical numbers relative to their retail price. People are willing to pay for the right to say they already have the item. It is not like this is a new phenomenon, the Simpsons were mocking aspects of this back in the mid nineties through the episode Lisa vs Malibu Stacy, as well as through their designated representative for geekdom Comic Book Guy. And the exact same flourish of merchandise purchases happened back in 1999 when the last Star Wars trilogy began.
But these items aren’t available for a limited time. Once stores sold out they were simply putting in fresh orders in order to restock their shelves. Or alternatively the exact same toys could be bought from the exact same companies they stood outside by going to their website and hitting ‘buy’, and that could be done from the comfort of their own homes. Sure, they’d have to wait a little longer, but again, the movie doesn’t come out until December.
The best way to understand all of this excitement over a midnight release for a bunch of toys is to not look at is as simply the act of buying toys, but participating in something far greater. Midnight releases, be it for Force Friday or for the latest video game, end up being mini-conventions for like-minded fans. There is instant fan credibility to be earned and in doing so you are participating in the grander vision of the brand. Toys’R’Us global chief merchandising officer Richard Barry mentioned after the event that “one of the incredible things about Star Wars as a brand is the enthusiasm is creates. We saw customers dressed as exact images of characters you’ve seen in previous movies.” It becomes a spectacle, and on top of that there is also an aspect of the ‘thrill of the hunt’. This aspect of collecting shouldn’t be overlooked, and managing to find a hard to find item or successfully grabbing the last Millennium Falcon from the shelves brings with it more than just the item, but a story or an emotional rush.
The proof is in the results, with many people who lined up for a midnight release unable to buy what they were after because stores were getting cleaned out of their stock within minutes. In between the #FarceFriday hashtags are far more from fans who were showing off their hauls, from single figures they had been after to a veritable bounty of merchandise. And chances are Force Friday will keep being a thing as the trilogy continues to release. All of this is in part of what Fortune is predicting will be a $1 billion dollar merchandising run through to the release of the movie in the U.S alone.
It was also interesting to follow the ‘release’ of the toys. Disney has been incredibly tight lipped over the upcoming movie and everything related to it, to the point that Anthony Daniels (who plays C-3PO) described the secrecy as “ludicrous”. The same could be said for the toys. Despite the fact the toys are out several months before the movie, images of the Force Friday releases were kept away until just days before Friday in a massive ‘unveiling’ livestream. This is of course ignoring the fact that some of these were already leaked online, but when prototype images are often out several months before a toy’s release, Disney’s approach here was noticeable. And once the movie is out and spoilers are less of a concern, they can release a fresh bunch of toys that show off more of the movie.
I won’t pretend to fully understand why people wait outside for midnight launches. It’s not something I’ve done myself, and although I’d consider it for a cinematic release I’m not a collector, so much of appeal in getting that action figure straight away is lost on me. But I do see part of the appeal. What I do know though is that Star Wars hasn’t lost its luster. The merchandise game is still big business and those who missed out on what they were after during Force Friday will get their hands on it all soon enough. And the wheel will keep spinning, so even though Disney handed over an incredible $4 billion dollars to Lucas to acquire Star Wars, the franchise won’t be leeching off of Mickey Mouse, but instead continuing to fill the mouse’s wallet.