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Layaway popular for shoppers this year

November 16, 2008|By MARIE GILBERT

HAGERSTOWN -- Sherynn Smith's shopping cart was so heavily loaded with toys, she needed help maneuvering it through the aisles at Kmart.

There were dolls and board games, an Easy-Bake oven and a remote-controlled train set.

It was the first week of November and Smith was getting a head start on her Christmas shopping.

But before the presents were tucked under the tree, they were taking a detour through layaway.

"This is a first for me," said the Hagerstown mother of three. "Usually, I have a holiday bonus that helps with gift buying. But my employer is eliminating that this year. So this is a great alternative. I can make a deposit, pay a little bit every week and I don't have to deal with interest."

With credit-card companies tightening limits and many consumers spooked by a slumping economy, layaway is an enticing option.

First, you have to find a store that offers it.

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A once-popular practice, layaway has gradually been abandoned by retailers, especially over the past two decades, as credit-card use has flourished.

Today, only a smattering of discount chains and independent retailers offer the option.

Among them is Kmart.

"To my knowledge, this is something we've always offered," said Jimmy Feltz, sales manager at the Hagerstown Kmart on Massey Boulevard. "And, without a doubt, our customers love it."

Feltz said the staff often receives compliments from shoppers who appreciate that the store continues to offer layaway.

"It's very popular," he said. "People take advantage of it by the cartloads."

Feltz said he has seen a trend this year of "folks shopping earlier than usual and taking advantage of the layaway program."

"It's been steady over the last month," he said. "There's been a particularly big spike when toys and electronics go on sale. Shoppers find what they need and place it on layaway until the holidays."

Feltz said there is a $10 deposit required for layaway items costing less than $100 and 10 percent required for items costing more than $100.

Payments are to be made every two weeks and the merchandise can be taken home when payments are completed.

Demand has been so high at Kmart that the large discount retailer has made its commitment to layaway the centerpiece of a national television ad campaign.

The ads promote layaway as an affordable way for families to finance their holiday season, Feltz said.

Marshall's, an off-price family apparel and home-fashion retailer, also offers layaway.

"This is something we've always made available to our customers," said Carol, a manager at the Hagerstown Marshall's who asked that her last name not be used.

"It's been very popular with our shoppers, absolutely - especially with gift buying," she said.

Sears recently announced it has begun offering layaway service in time for holiday shopping.

In a press release sent out last week, the store announced that "layaway is back," for the holiday season. The release noted holiday shoppers can reserve items for $15 or 20 percent down.

The release said some items, such as home electronics and appliances, are not eligible for layaway.

While many major national chains do not offer layaway, it is available at several locally owned businesses, including Camillions, a specialty boutique in Hagerstown.

"People take advantage of layaway throughout the year," said Lou Ann Wisecarver, the store's assistant manager. "But it seems to be catching on more and more."

Anything in the store can be placed on layaway, she said, "as long as the item is in stock. We can't do layaway on special orders."

Wisecarver said customers can make a down payment and then pay in monthly installments.

"We don't have set rules," she said. "We try to help our customers as much as we can. That's why we're called a specialty store. We do special things for our customers."

R. Bruce Carson Jewelers of Hagerstown also offers a layaway program, "but women are more likely to take advantage of it than men," said Deborah Vattelana, floor manager.

"Men tend to come in at the last minute, so they'll put something on a credit card," she said.

Normally, a 20 percent to 30 percent down payment - depending on the price of the item - is required. Payments are then made over a three-month period, she said.

Retail giant Wal-Mart offered a layaway program until 2006, said Ashley Hardie, company spokeswoman.

"We discontinued the practice based on customer feedback," she said. "More and more people were using credit cards."

Hardie said Wal-Mart still offers layaway for jewelry but has no immediate plans to resurrect the practice storewide.

"Wal-Mart believes the best way to help the consumer during rough economic times is to keep prices low. We'll continue to keep them low to help people stretch their dollars," she said.

Shopping at Valley Mall recently, Lenore Roman of Hagerstown said she appreciated stores trying to keep their prices low but liked the option of layaway.

"I don't understand why it's not offered anymore," she said. "When I was growing up, my mother used layaway all the time. I think it's a great way to stay out of debt."

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