Editorial Policy

Retailers Revive Layaway for the Holidays

Marcia Frellick

September 29, 2011

Next month, Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, will become the latest major player to offer layaway as a shopping option for those who either can’t get credit or are reluctant to use it.

Walmart will roll out its holiday shopping payment plan for electronics and toys at stores nationwide Oct. 17 to Dec. 16. It joins several other major retailers, including Toys R Us, Marshalls, Sears, Kmart, Burlington Coat Factory, T.J. Maxx and Best Buy, in offering layaway.

“Layaway is great for anyone who wants to stay on track with their budget,” says Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation, adding that retailers who already have programs report “great success.”

Layaway works this way: Customers choose items eligible for layaway at a particular store and sign a contract to make regular payments over a period, typically either eight or 12 weeks, depending on the price of the item.

The item stays in the store until the final payment is made. Some stores charge a fee to set up the account and a cancellation fee if you change your mind about the item. Some ask for a down payment and may charge shipping fees.

“This is usually for people who have had a financial hiccup and don’t have access to credit or have maxed out their credit cards,” says Kelly Rogers, financial literacy expert at SurePath Financial Solutions in Camarillo, Calif. She recommends it only as a middle-of-the-road solution.

“I’d rather they put the money away themselves and save, but it’s definitely better than buying the item now on your credit card and paying it off later with interest,” Rogers says.

There are several reasons to avoid layaway, other than having to pay high interest rates, she says. One is that if you lock into buying the item a few months before the holidays, you may miss out on the sale prices of Black Friday or Cyber Monday.

If you are saving on your own, you can buy when the price is right. Another is that you are borrowing against your future pay. If you lose your income, you still have to make the payments or pay a cancellation fee. And you are tying up money you may need for an emergency. If you go into a store to make payments, you may also be regularly tempted to shop for other things you haven’t planned for.

But for those who have trouble saving, layaway can be the right choice. Just be sure you understand the terms of the contract, Rogers says, such as when payments are due or what happens if you’re late.

The Better Business Bureau (BBB) recommends finding out what happens if the price drops after you’ve put an item on layaway, what happens if the store goes out of business, what happens if the item is damaged while on layaway and whether complaints against the store have been filed with the BBB.

There are no federal laws that address layaway plans directly. Consumers have to count on various state laws and the general protection in the Federal Trade Commission Act against unfair and deceptive practices and the Truth in Lending Act.

The practice got its start during the Depression. It was a way that people living paycheck to paycheck could afford items they couldn’t pay for right away and it opened up new possibilities. John Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, even agreed to plunk down $5 to put a blue disco shirt on layaway in the classic ’70s movie “Saturday Night Fever.”

When credit and gift cards began to flood the market, layaway plans got shelved. “Consumers would use credit to buy gifts because they could take the item home that day and pay over time instead of making trips to the store to pay on something they couldn’t have,” Grannis says.

But with the economic downturn in recent years, the practice reappeared and now Walmart, which had discontinued layaway in 2006, is jumping back in.

“These days, consumers find it of great value,” Grannis says. “Consumers are extremely budget-focused and layaway helps them stay on track.”

Stores are testing the concept to see whether demand justifies the considerable expense for providing extra personnel, shelf space and software. Stores are also risking lost sales if customers cancel and items have been out of view for other shoppers.

But layaway isn’t just available in brick-and-mortar stores. Companies such as Lay-Away.com and eLayaway.com offer a way for customers to shop for everything from diamonds to electronics to fabric to restaurant gift certificates from their favorite retailers and check out electronically.

Instead of charging the total to a credit card, customers can decide how many payments to make for what amount. eLayaway debits customers’ bank accounts; so does Lay-Away.com, but it also allows payment by check or money order. Lay-Away.com customers don’t pay a service fee; eLayaway.com charges a fee of 1.9 percent to 3 percent per transaction.

Whether in-store or online, the practice appeals to those who want to work ahead on finances as the holiday season approaches and take back a little control in an uncertain economy.

It may also appeal to parents who want to take back a little control in their own households. “It’s also great for parents who want to keep their children from snooping around the house too early to see their gift,” Grannis says.