Hold the plastic, the layaway is back

This holiday season, a retail classic is back: layaways.

For many families, it's long been a shopping mainstay. Put $10, $20 or $50 down on that new dress, winter coats for the kids or a crib for the baby. Make regular small payments, then pick up the merchandise in 30 to 90 days. But in recent decades, layaways got shelved by many retailers as consumers increasingly were only too happy to plunk down the plastic.

This year, in an economy battered by layoffs, bankruptcies and a stubborn credit crunch, some high-profile retailers are reaching out to cash-strapped customers by reviving the old standby.

"Layaway is very big for us," said Mike Meade, manager of the Sacramento Kmart on Stockton Boulevard, where layaway transactions helped boost holiday sales this year.

On Black Friday, when business was up 20 percent over a year ago, layaway transactions accounted for 10 percent of the Stockton Boulevard store's sales, Meade said.

Sears, which dusted off its holiday layaway program in mid-November after a 20-year hiatus, is among U.S. retailers that are touting layaway plans in a big way.

"It's a good move for retailers in response to the pain consumers are feeling from everything that's going on in the economy," said Mike Romano, executive vice president of Irvine-based retail industry tracker SmartReply. "It's a case of 'what goes around, comes around.' "

Sacramentan Rochelle Kemp, a self-described "layaway queen," agrees, saying the policy is tailor-made for a rough economy.

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"We're in a recession. People don't have a lot of money, so they're trying to get the best deal they can," said the retired electronics technician, while waiting in line Friday at a Dressbarn in Natomas.