LOS ANGELES - As shoppers mind their finances this season, the oft-forgotten but still useful layaway plan has re-emerged as a way to avoid debt.
Many stores discontinued the practice years ago as more and more consumers obtained credit cards, allowing them to purchase beyond their means. But for those that still offer the reserve-now, pay-later service, interest remains high. From discounters like Kmart to specialty shops like Guitar Center, many stores still see value in letting their shoppers set aside an item, then pay it off and pick it up when they're able.
"They're very popular with our customers," said Sharon Weber, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. "It really increases their buying power."
Shoppers pay 10 percent of an item's value, then have 60 days to pay it off, with no finance charge. When the chain offers an unusual sale, such as on the day after Thanksgiving, Weber said, interest soars as shoppers scramble to take advantage of one-time bargains.
At Sears, big-ticket items in fine jewelry and seasonal promotions, such as for snow blowers in colder climates, can be put on layaway. Though there's a minimal fee, which varies depending on an item's value, shoppers have up to a year to pay off the bills.
"It's for the customer who's in a financial situation where it works better to pay it over time,'" said Sears spokeswoman Cheryl Ann Lambert. "It's a service to spread out the payments."
Though still heavily used in some stores, the National Retail Federation says the practice has waned in general, with consumers more likely to reach for their plastic than consider waiting to take their haul home.
"Today's shopper is an instant-gratification one," said NRF spokeswoman Ellen Tolley. "They don't think four to six months ahead. They think four to six hours ahead."