Last year at this time, Sears and Kmart helped consumers rediscover the old-fashioned concept of the layaway purchase, in which shoppers make periodic payments to a special account to save up for big-ticket goods and take them home only after they’re paid for in full.
With so many Americans still struggling financially and reeling under credit-card debt -- our recent holiday poll reveals that an estimated 13.5 million consumers are carrying debt leftover from last Christmas – layaway is likely to be an even more attractive alternative to pay for gifts this holiday season. Beside Sears and Kmart, major retailers offering layaway plans include Toys “R” Us, Babies “R” Us, TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, and Burlington Coat Factory. Layaway is also available for many online purchases through third-party firms like eLayaway, which has an affiliate relationship with more than 1,000 merchants such as Best Buy, Bass Pro Shops, Apple Store, and The Home Depot.
If you’re unfamiliar with the layaway process, here’s how it works: You enter into a contract and make an initial deposit based on a percentage of the purchase price, along with a service fee to administer the plan and keep the item in storage. There are no interest payments, since you don’t actually take possession of the merchandise until you’ve paid for it.
Like any transaction, you can avoid potential pitfalls by doing some preliminary legwork. Toward that end, the Better Business Bureau just released a checklist of key questions to ask before opening a layaway account:
• How much time do I have to pay off the item? The usual timeframe is usually 30 to 90 days.
• What’s the minimum down payment? Ten to 20 percent is common.
• When are payments due? After the initial down payment, some contracts require additional contributions weekly or every two weeks; some let you make payments whenever you want during the timeframe.
• Are there storage or service-plan fees? Kmart charges a flat $5; Toys “R” Us has a $10 fee.
• What happens if a payment is missed? Are there penalties? Does the item return to inventory? If you miss a payment or fail to pay the minimum due, you might have to double up on your next scheduled payment. At some stores, the merchandise is returned to the shelf as soon as 7 days after a missed payment.
• Can I get a refund or store credit if I no longer want the item after making a few payments? Cancellation fees typically range from around $5 to $10. At Burlington Coat Factory, layaway deposits and payments are non-refundable, but may be converted to a gift card if layaway is cancelled. In addition, the company won’t give you a refund if you decide to return an item you’ve paid for in full, only a gift card.
• What happens if the item goes on sale after I’ve put it on layaway? Kmart won’t make any price adjustment after 7 days from the date you open a layaway account. Sears gives customers a 30-day window.
• Get it in writing. Don’t take the salesperson’s word for it. Ask for the complete terms and conditions in writing. And be sure to keep detailed and accurate records of all payments made.
Layaway plans aren’t specifically regulated by Federal law, although the Federal Trade Commission can go after a company for unfair or deceptive practices. Click here for information about filing a claim. Check with your state attorney general, local consumer protection agency, or the local Better Business Bureau to find out if state or local laws cover layaway purchases.