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The Empire strikes paydirt

Merchandise tie-ins officially launch today for the upcoming Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace movie. Buyers storm online merchants like an army of Jedi Knights.

The premiere is still more than two weeks away, but Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace merchandise hit the virtual shelves in a big way today, leading to a jump in traffic at online retail sites.

License agreements with Lucasfilm prevented retailers from selling Phantom Menace-related items like books, action figures, and games before today. Many retailers went online with their items at 12:01 a.m. today.

Some users reported difficulties accessing the Mos Espa Marketplace, as the official Star Wars store was hit with a "phenomenal" increase in traffic. Jon Snyder, vice president of Fantastic Media, which runs the Web site in partnership with Lucasfilm, said traffic on the site increased "several fold" today over the average of the past several months.

"We've been getting lots of orders," Snyder said.

Snyder said Mos Espa, which has been online since December, will be offering about 100 different Episode I items by the end of today and expects to have about 700 by the beginning of next week. Before today, the store offered merchandise related to previous "Star Wars" movies, and some exclusive items from Episode I such as movie posters.

Lucasfilm has tightly controlled distribution of Episode I merchandise. "We're the only place in the world for these items," Snyder said.

But Mos Espa wasn't the only online store trying to cash in on Star Wars collectibles. While big players in the online toy market such as eToys and Toys R Us offered a wide selection of Star Wars merchandise, others focused on hard-to-find items.

Through its Web site, toy store chain KB Toys offered boxed sets of Star Wars action figures. John Reilly, a KB spokesman, said the company would not offer the same merchandise online that it did in its brick-and-mortar stores. Instead, KB will "handpick" items to offer on the site.

"The overall philosophy of our site is to offer customers unique and unusual offerings," Reilly said.

Through its Auctions site, Amazon.com shoppers could bid on a Star Wars special edition Hummer. By 4:15 p.m. PT today, the sports utility vehicle had received more than 50 bids. The highest one was for $53,600.

Amazon spokesman Paul Capelli said the online retailer, which has set up a special "Star Wars store," was trying to appeal to average customers and hard-core fans. Capelli said Amazon was already offering "hundreds" of Star Wars-related items and would be adding more.

According to Jupiter Communications, online toy sales will reach $53 million in 1999. But Ken Cassar, digital commerce analyst at Jupiter, said that figure did not include sales related to the new "Star Wars" movie. He said merchandise from the movie should have a "positive effect" on online toy sales.

"I wouldn't be surprised if the strength of Star Wars did drive the overall number higher than forecasted," Cassar said.