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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 22, 2006

Wal-Mart's end to layaway service dismays some

By Abigail Goldman
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES Three burgundy blankets and two white lamp shades wait for Audrey Larry in a small storeroom at a Wal-Mart in South Los Angeles.

But only until December. Seventeen days before Christmas, the retailing giant will discontinue its layaway service, which for decades shoppers like Larry have used to stash their dreams color TVs, coats, bedroom furniture sets until they could finishing paying for them.

Larry, 57, has used layaway at various stores as an interest-free way to save up for goods by leaving them at the store and paying for them in installments.

But over the past 20 years, as nearly every other national retailer quit offering the service, Wal-Mart became a mainstay for Larry and many others.

"This is going to be devastating," said Larry, who lives on her Social Security checks. "Layaway is for people who don't have credit cards and who don't have a lot of money and are on low budgets this is how they buy their stuff."

Wal-Mart, which built its business offering low-cost goods to customers with limited choices, said it would end its 44-year-old layaway service because few people take advantage of it anymore.

"Our goal is to help folks provide for all their needs, but at the end of the day, fewer and fewer people are using layaway," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Linda Blakley. "We want them to continue to be our customers, and that's one of the reasons we're looking at programs that will allow us to offer additional purchase options," she said.

Wal-Mart, which will continue its layaway service in Canada and Puerto Rico, said the company offered no-interest financing options on its Wal-Mart credit card and also has tested prepaid debit cards.

The company has posted signs at its more than 3,200 Wal-Mart stores letting customers know that they would have until Nov. 19 to put items on layaway and until Dec. 8 to pick them up.

DAYS OF NO CREDIT

"Layaways came from a period when credit didn't exist for the working class," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California-Santa Barbara and editor of "Wal-Mart: The Face of 21st Century Capitalism." "It was a tangible symbol of an ongoing relationship with a customer who would be returning again and again."

But those days are long gone, he said, particularly for Wal-Mart, which is trying to remake its image as a slightly more upscale retailer.

There are still a few layaway programs around. Kmart offers the service storewide as a way to serve the lowest-income consumers; Sears, Roebuck & Co. offers layaway on some big-ticket items, such as jewelry. Both stores are owned by Sears Holding Corp.

Still, for shoppers who depend on layaway to make ends meet particularly at holiday time not having a payment plan option at the world's biggest retailer will be a serious blow.

While credit cards allow customers to enjoy goods now and pay for them later, often with interest added, layaway lets shoppers secure items at the store and pay them off over time, usually with no fees or interest.

Layaway programs began in the 1920s and took off in the decades thereafter when money was tight and formal credit plans were nonexistent.

"The practice really became kind of a tradition in a lot of places," said Dan Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations at the National Retail Federation.

Layaway was particularly popular in rural America Wal-Mart's original terrain where farmers often only came to town once a month, Butler said.

Credit cards became widely available in the 1960s and 1970s, and most retailers did away with their layaway programs, Butler said. But not Wal-Mart, which opened its first store in 1962 and offered the service from the start.

TROUBLE WITH LAYAWAY

Retailers have had many problems with layaway programs. Merchandise could be tied up for weeks or months, only to have buyers change their minds. Sometimes, if customers simply stopped making payments, stores had to spend time trying to track down shoppers to return the payments they did make.

And by the time the merchandise was ready to go back on the shelves, it often was out of season, out of date or obsolete, leaving the retailer holding the bag.

Wal-Mart requires layaway shoppers to pay an initial deposit of 10 percent of the cost of their goods, pay a portion of the bill every two weeks and make a final payment within 60 days.

"It made life easier the next time I got paid, I could get my stuff off layaway," said Rochelle Richardson, 46, a teacher's assistant who has used layaway for years at various stores. "If they take it away, people that don't have a lot of money, it will be hard for them."