Sep. 17, 2013 at 8:49 AM ET
It’s mid-September and the Christmas shopping season is now officially underway. A number of major stores, including Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Sears have already rolled out their holiday layaway programs.
“A lot of retailers expect this to be another big year for layaway,” said Kathy Grannis, senior director of media relations at the National Retail Federation. “Layaway has re-emerged as a budget-savvy way to keep family spending in check during the holiday shopping season.”
Wal-Mart is already touting its “free” holiday layaway program in newspaper and TV ads. Last year, they charged a $5 fee, even though that money was refunded to customers in the form of a store gift card.
“This year, it’s literally free,” proclaimed Wal-Mart’s Veronica Marshall. “ There’s no opening fees and no gift card reimbursements.”
But there is a $10 fee if you cancel a layaway order. Wal-Mart got rid of that cancellation fee in 2012 and brought it back this year.
“The idea of having a $10 cancellation fee was based on feedback from our customers,” Marshall said. “They told us they would rather pay nothing down to open their layaway account and apply that money to their actual purchases and pay a cancellation fee on the back end, if they had to do that.”
Many stores have a cancellation fee, so it’s important to check. The “free” holiday layaway program at Toys R Us has a $10 cancellation fee. It’s $15 at Sears.
Consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, has no problem with a small cancellation fee – it discourages people from frivolously putting things on layaway. But he would like to see better disclosures about that penalty.
“The cancellation fee is often hidden in the fine print which could be easily missed by someone who sees ‘Free Layaway’ in the bold headline and does not read all the details about the program – which is most of us,” Dworsky said.
And there can be a good deal of fine print associated with these layaway programs.
“Layaway used to be simple, but not anymore,” Dworsky told me. “There are lots of rules and there is no uniformity. Even with Kmart and Sears, different rules apply and they‘re owned by the same company.”
Does layaway still make sense?
Consumer advocates say it’s a great way to plan ahead for a major purchase and stick to a budget, especially when funds are limited. It lets you spread the cost of an item over a number of payments without running up a lot of costly debt.
“The fees, if any, are generally nominal and probably much lower than the interest you’d pay if you purchased those things with a credit card and didn’t pay off the bill for several months,” explained Tod Marks, senior editor and shopping expert at Consumer Reports.
With layaway, you don’t have to worry that the store will run out of item you want. And it can help restrain impulsive buyers who reach for the credit card whenever they see something they want.
“It forces you to ask yourself if this something you really want to invest in and then save up before you buy it,” Marks said.
Just remember, with layaway you typically lock in the price at the time you open the account. So, if it goes on sale later on – at that store or another retailer – you’re probably stuck.
“It’s a little bit of a risk, but for most people it won’t break the bank,” Marks said. “And if you’re shopping at a discount store like Wal-Mart, the risk is even less.”
The only real negative with layaway is if you have to cancel and pay a fee, but that’s a lot better than not being able to make a payment on your credit card. And that cancellation fee won’t hurt your credit score.
Get the most out of layaway
The Better Business Bureau advises that you get everything in writing before you put an item on layaway. Here is a checklist of the important questions to ask:
Don’t assume everything can be put on layaway. Most stores limit this service to certain types of merchandise, such as toys, electronics, appliances, furniture and jewelry. Some stores include clothing, others don’t.
“It can be complicated, but it’s still a valuable thing for people who don’t have the money right now to buy something they really want,” Consumer World’s Dworsky said.
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