For years, many Wal-Mart shoppers have relied on layaway to make their holiday purchases. They deserve a lot of credit.
In fact, that's the way Wal-Mart executives prefer it as the retail giant discontinues layaway at its 3,200-plus stores across the country effective Friday.
"The use of layaway service has been declining, and more and more customers use alternative methods of payment," said Jami Arms, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart. Those alternative methods of payment usually involve credit cards and interest payments.
For some shoppers -- especially younger ones -- the concept of layaway might be confusing: You pick out the item you want at the store, you give the clerk some money -- but not enough to cover the full price -- and you leave. The item that you selected stays at the store.
It can be a jarring notion to a generation or more of shoppers who have become used to doing it the other way around: getting what they want now and paying for it later.
Layaway, an almost-quaint concept that thrived in rural and poorer communities, isn't as common as it once was.
"It's a generational thing," said Gayle Marco, an associate professor of marketing at Robert Morris University for more than 20 years. "Today's consumers want it now, and credit has made it so easy to get it now.
"Layaway was an old type of thing. It was really a precursor to credit."
The biggest advantage to buying merchandise on layaway is that there are no interest charges. And the items remain in the store's back rooms.
"Instead of driving around with them in the trunk of your car, you could just leave them at Wal-Mart or Kmart or Zayres," Ms. Marco said.
That, however, is one of the things that has made layaway impractical for some stores.
"When you had the Downtown stores, the big stores, they had space," she said. "But when they move to the [suburban] malls, they don't have that kind of storage space on site. Their square footage is put out to sell. Not to hold merchandise."
Another problem with layaway is cited by Tim Lyons, a spokesman for JCPenney, which discontinued its layaway service in April 2005.
"You essentially take the merchandise out of stock and hold it on layaway," Mr. Lyons said. "And if the customer ultimately decides not to purchase it, you may have an item that's out-of-date. And what do you do with it? It's past its selling season. A lot of our goods are seasonal, especially apparel.
"And there's more handling involved."
Patricia Garnett, 54, of Penn Hills, pushed her shopping cart up to the layaway counter at the Wal-Mart in the Waterworks shopping center earlier this week and made the last of her installment payments on four Christmas toys for her grandchildren. She frequently uses layaway at other stores -- including T.J.Maxx, Marshall's and Kmart -- all year-round, not just at the holidays.
"It's economically wise for me to do it that way," she said. "So I know that I can budget my money, and I know that in a certain time period I can pick it up.
"A lot of people don't get paid till the 15th and the 30th of the month. People have to scrape and save."
Mrs. Garnett is dismissive of the other payment options offered by Wal-Mart and other retailers.
"Why should you do that and have to pay all that interest?" she asked. "This is a way for me to balance my money. And I do a lot of my shopping like that."
She's upset about the change. "I think it's a shame that Wal-Mart is not thinking about the everyday, hard-working person. They're just not interested in us anymore, and I'm very disappointed. They probably aren't going to get a lot of my business at Christmas time and birthday time anymore."
Kmart, which has offered layaway for 40 years, is seizing the Wal-Mart decision as an opportunity to expand its customer base. Kim Freely, spokeswoman for Sears Holdings, which includes Kmart, said, "Our customers have expressed [that it's] important to keep layaway, and we're committed to providing that service. It's a convenience option."
But if layaway is such a good idea, why wouldn't Sears, the parent company of Kmart, also promote it?
"Sears does layaway," Ms. Freely said. "But it's on a more limited basis. We have layaway on fine jewelry year-round. And we have layaway on promotional big-ticket items. We just completed one on snowblowers."
Patrice Johnson, who works in layaway at the Kmart in Parkway Center Mall in Green Tree, said she already has seen a boost in the number of customers using layaway. The back room, where the items are stored, is near full, not just because Wal-Mart is discontinuing the service, but because Kmart shoppers have an extra eight days -- until Dec. 16 -- to pay for and pick up their items. After that date, she said, there is no layaway offered until after the Kmart stores do their inventory in January.
Alleda Glanton, 54, of Beltzhoover, shook her head about Wal-Mart's decision as her daughter-in-law, Arlene Scoggins, 30, of Beltzhoover, put some baby things on layaway at Kmart.
"They try to push that on you," she said of the credit option. "But if you don't want credit, why should you have to get credit? That's just like everywhere you go, they want you to have another credit card. Working people don't always have that money to just buy it right out."
Ms. Marco said that's why layaway is likely to remain a part -- albeit a shrinking one -- of the retail picture.
"It's going to last because you still have people who will use it," she said.
Dan Majors can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1456.