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Amid Credit Crunch, Retailers Bring Back Layaway

Tammy Wyatt, a specialist at Kmart in Conover, N.C., hangs a bag containing back-to-school supplies that a customer has put on layaway.
Nell Redmond
Tammy Wyatt, a specialist at Kmart in Conover, N.C., hangs a bag containing back-to-school supplies that a customer has put on layaway.

Layaway is back.

For years the service was a staple of department stores that helped cash-strapped customers reserve merchandise and then pay it off later. But layaway, replaced by easy consumer credit, largely faded away by the 1990s.

Today, credit cards are maxed out, and struggling retailers have resurrected layaway to get shoppers back in the aisles. Sears is once again offering layaway, and Kmart, where the service was never discontinued, is giving the idea a fresh push with a new national ad campaign.

In one TV ad, a woman is putting her back-to-school items in layaway and boasts to a friend that she likes "to plan ahead."

At a Marshalls store in Arlington, Va., Nicole Renman was also planning ahead. She listed off the items going into layaway. For a small down payment, she will put them on reserve and pay them off later, either in one lump sum or in installments.

"Bedsheet, household items, children's clothing, socks, shoes," she said. "You name it. Everything's in there."

Renman said she's afraid of falling behind on her credit card payments, but layaway is easy.

"You don't have to put your money upfront, right away," she said.

There is a small catch, however. If a customer doesn't pay off the item, he or she can usually get a full refund but will be charged a penalty for not following through.

Howard Davidowitz, a New York-based retail analyst, said layaway is growing in some areas, but only about seven or eight retailers have gone back to it in a big way because for most of them it doesn't make economic sense.

"It's all this handling [and] processing," he told NPR's Ari Shapiro on Morning Edition.

"The customer comes in, pays $3 every week. It was a messy business, [and] most retailers, including Wal-Mart, did not find it profitable and gave it up."

The fact that any of the big retailers have gone back to layaway says a lot about the sorry state of the American consumer, Davidowitz said.

"I don't want to say that it's an act of desperation, but it does show desperation and weakness of the American consumer," he said.

It used to be easy for consumers to just charge even small items on their credit cards. But now the cards are at their limit or have been canceled, he said.

"Now, if the kid needs a pair of denim and a pair of sneakers to go back to school, that becomes a crisis. So, that couple of dollars means everything," he said.

"What it says is that the consumer is under enormous stress. If you're out of money and you're out of credit, layaway is a way to get something," he said.

Meanwhile, Renman, the Marshalls customer, said she is already laying away items for Christmas.

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