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Big retailers offering free pre-holidays layaways

Sep. 11, 2012 at 7:51 AM ET

Yvonne Hemsey / Getty Images file /
Kmart stores have introduced a free layaway program in the run-up to the holidays.

Some big-name retailers are taking steps to deal with what’s sure to be another stressful holiday shopping season for many Americans. Kmart, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart are cutting the cost of their layaway programs.

On Friday, Kmart introduced free layaway for the next two months. Sears Holdings Corporation (which owns the company) announced it had dropped the service fee on new layaway purchases made online or at Kmart stores from now through November 17. There is no minimum transaction amount required. 

Kmart’s regular layaway charge is $5 on 8-week contracts and $10 for 12-week contracts. 

“We did this because this is what our customers asked us to do,” said Jai Holtz, vice president of financial services at Sears Holdings. “They prefer layaway to other methods of financing.” 

Holtz told me Sears is also planning to launch a free layaway program for holiday shoppers. An announcement is expected in October. 

Toys R Us beat Kmart to the punch by a few days. On Monday of last week, it introduced its new “enhanced holiday layaway program” that also offers free layaway – with no minimum purchase – from now through October 31. The free service applies to most merchandise in Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores. After Halloween, there’s a $5 service fee for layaway orders.

“Providing our customers flexible payment terms, without requiring an upfront service fee, is our most attractive layaway offer yet,” said Executive Vice President Troy Rice.

Wal-Mart, which brought back its layaway program last year, will reduce its service fee from $15 to $5 starting Sept. 16. The lower fee is good through Dec. 14.

“When our customers speak up, we listen,” Duncan Mac Naughton, said Wal-Mart’s chief merchandising and marketing officer. “We believe this rollback strengthens our layaway offering.”

Customers will get the $5 fee refunded on a Wal-Mart gift card when they make the final payment. So for them, the layaway program is really free.

Wal-Mart also expanded its layaway program to more products and extended the pay period from 60 to 90 days. Individual items must be priced at $15 or more and the total purchase must be at least $50.

If the order is cancelled or not paid in full, the $5 fee will not be refunded, but there is no additional cancellation fee. In the past it was $10.

What’s old is new again

Layaway, which was popular during the Great Depression, had nearly gone away thanks to easy credit. National retailers dusted off the concept when the economy tanked in 2008. And they’ve been expanding the service ever since.

“Layaway plans represent an old-fashioned but sound concept that many Americans have forgotten,” explained Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, an online consumer resource guide.  “You put away money a little at a time until you can afford to buy what you want rather than running up a credit card bill and only later worrying about how to pay it off.”

If you do layaway, do it right

Before you start any layaway program you need to know about the down payment. How much is required? You also want to ask what happens if the item goes on sale while still on layaway. Will you get the lower price?

Layaway programs have a lot of rules, such as when to pay, where to pay and the deadline for picking up the item. Make sure you read them and understand them. Break any of the rules, and that layaway will be cancelled and you’ll be charged a cancellation fee — normally around $10. 

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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