By Nandita Bose
CHICAGO (Reuters) - For the second year in a row, Wal-Mart Stores Inc will begin its holiday layaway program two weeks early, hoping for a head start to the year-end shopping season and a repeat of last year's strong toy sales driven by "Star Wars" products.
Layaway programs, which let shoppers pay for holiday gifts in installments, tend to have a big impact on sales. Analyst estimates suggest the program may account for as much as 15 percent of holiday revenues at Wal-Mart stores in poorer areas of the United States.
The world's largest retailer is starting the layaway program on Sept. 2 and like the previous year, customers can pay as little as $10 to hold items worth a minimum of $50.
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Wal-Mart expects the demand for toys to remain strong this year, after sales surged in 2015 in conjunction with the release of the latest movie in the wildly popular "Star Wars" series produced by Walt Disney Co. The next movie is due to premiere on Dec. 16.
According to data released by research firm The NPD Group in January, U.S. toy sales increased 6.7 percent to $19.4 billion last year, topping the firm's estimate of 6.2 percent growth.
"We have seen some really great momentum (in toy sales) from the day after Christmas through the spring season and we don't expect that to change," Anne Marie Kehoe, Wal-Mart's vice president of toys, said on a conference call.
Kehoe said she expects "Star Wars" to be a big brand again this year.
Toys inspired by movies outperformed the market, growing by 9.4 percent, according to NPD. That included $700 million in sales from "Star Wars" products, making it the No. 1 property of the year. The franchise was worth more than "Jurassic World," "Minions" and "Avengers" combined.
Wal-Mart will have more than 400 toys exclusively available at its stores, including Star Wars Black Series collector figures and the Barbie Camping Collection, Kehoe said.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Chicago; Editing by Bill Rigby)