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Posted December 13, 2008 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Return of layaway: Sears joins Kmart in offering service to budget shoppers

Yolanda Cogswell, a cashier at the Sears store at Apple Blossom Mall in Winchester, takes a layaway order Friday.

By James Heffernan -- Daily Staff Writer

WINCHESTER -- The sign above the checkouts at Sears in Apple Blossom Mall lists all the familiar transactions: cash, check and credit card purchases, account payments and returns.

But this holiday season, there's a special on the menu that many budget shoppers haven't enjoyed in a long while: layaway.

Sears, in a nod to the down economy, is taking a page from the playbook of its sister chain, Kmart, in allowing shoppers to place items they want to purchase on hold and pay for them over time.

Layaway can be an attractive option for individuals and families who are short on cash or are having trouble securing credit in the current lending environment. And its allows buyers to set their own payment schedules.

"It's like their own personal credit card," store Operations Manager Tim Longerbeam said.

For a $5 fee up front and a down payment of $15 or 20 percent of the purchase price -- whichever is greater -- Sears will hold the merchandise until it is paid off. Customers have until Dec. 23 to pick it up.

There is no limit to the number of items that can be put on layaway at Sears, but there are certain restrictions. Home electronics and appliances, for example, are not eligible for the program.

Longerbeam said clothing has been the most popular layaway item since the chain implemented the program last month.

"We get a lot of parents buying the kids clothes for Christmas," he said.

Sears' line of Craftsman tools and hardware is also popular, he said.

Customers are "very thankful they have another way to purchase gifts other than put it on a charge card or have the cash on hand in these tough times," said store manager Carol Laupp.

Layaway programs were popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but by the '90s, most of them had been abandoned, as consumers turned to credit cards, gift cards and online shopping. Even retail giant Wal-Mart phased out its layaway program at the end of 2006, citing increasing costs and declining use.

One chain that didn't abandon the practice was Kmart, which merged with Sears in mid-2005.

Dale Brown, a manager at Kmart in Front Royal, said that decision is paying dividends this season.

"We have a lot of layaways this year because of the economy," she said. "It's helping a lot of people out. ... I've had people say, 'If it hadn't been for layaway, I don't know what I would have done.'"

Kmart layaway requires a down payment of $15 or 10 percent of the purchase price, and customers have eight weeks to pay off the merchandise and pick it up.

Laupp said Sears' layaway program has been so popular that the company is considering continuing it next year.

"It's given us the ability to capture sales that we wouldn't necessarily have had."

* Contact James Heffernan at View image

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