If you don't have cash and your credit is lousy, most major retailers will let you put a big purchase on layaway and pick it up when you're done paying it off.
That's fine for Christmas presents. But what if your refrigerator just broke, and you don't have the option of waiting two months to get a new one?
It's with that sort of scenario in mind that Sears (SHLD) will be rolling out a lease-to-own program starting May 15. Customers who want to make a major purchase but can't get financing or wait for layaway will be able to rent the item, with the goal of ultimately buying it outright.
Sears says that the program will be limited to appliances, electronics, furniture, mattresses and other similar products; the item must cost at least $280 to qualify. While there is no credit check, customers must be at least 18, make at least $1,000 a month, and have either a Social Security number or a taxpayer ID.
The program is being made possible through a partnership with WhyNotLeaseIt, a New Hampshire-based lease-to-own company.
Jai Holtz, vice president of financial services for Sears Holdings, tells DailyFinance that Sears started testing the program back in September at 10 stores across the country.
"The response from customers has been tremendous," he says. So far, he adds, refrigerators and lawn tractors have been the most popular items for customers to purchase via lease-to-own.
When the lease program rolls out nationally next week, Sears will become the first major retail chain to offer one. Until now, lease-to-own has traditionally been associated with companies like Rent-a-Center and Aaron's, and the practice has attracted plenty of criticism. A 2011 Consumer Reports investigation found that lease-to-own arrangements can result in consumers paying double or even triple the sticker prices when all is said and done.
From what Sears told DailyFinance about the program, though, it sounds like the retailer will be steering clear of these excesses. Customers will be charged the same price as someone buying the item outright, and all rent payments will be deducted from the final purchase price. After five months of monthly or biweekly payments, the customer will have the option of paying the balance and owning the product. If they're not ready to do so, they can continue making payments until 18 months after the time of purchase.
But you may be wondering: What about interest? How much am I paying for the privilege of this lease-to-own deal? No worries: There is no interest, says Holtz. And to quote from the FAQ page of Sears partner WhyNotLeaseIt:
What is the interest rate? A lease is not a loan -- there is no interest rate. Please carefully examine your payment schedule for amounts payable.
Customers who can't pay off their balance within 18 months or who decide they'd rather not own the item can call to have it picked up, and WhyNotLeaseIt will take possession.
But therein lies the danger: If you ultimately can't afford to own the item, you're out whatever rental payments you've paid up to that point. The last thing you want to do is make months of payments on an appliance and not even get to keep it.
After all, if you put a refrigerator on layaway and can't afford to finish making payments, you get your money back. And if you put it on a credit card and have trouble paying off your debt, you have numerous debt repayment options (and have the option of selling your fridge second-hand to help recoup some losses).
But if you lose your job halfway through paying off your lease-to-own agreement, the company simply takes back your fridge, and you're out hundreds of dollars (and without anyplace to put your eggs and milk).
So the golden rule of borrowing still applies: Don't buy something if you're not sure you can afford it. But if you're confident that you'll be able to pay it off within 18 months, this will be a great option for anyone who needs an appliance immediately, but can't borrow money or put it on a credit card.
"Access to credit for many Americans has become much more difficult," says Holtz. "This lets us serve those individuals."
Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.
America's Most Popular Stores
Can't Afford That New Refrigerator? Sears Will Let You Lease-to-Own
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 14.2% Revenue: $73.3 billion 1-year stock price change: 27.56% Store category: Discount & variety stores
Target (TGT) was the second most-visited discount retailer in the U.S. during March, behind only Walmart. One reason was the number of Target stores. The company has been attempting to take on Walmart by adding grocery sections to more stores, and by offering groceries at competitive prices. This has helped Target maintain strong financial performance despite the weak economy and its additional spending on its launch in Canada. Most Americans surveyed by the American Customer Satisfaction Index rated Target well: It finished in a three-way tie for second place in the department and discount store category, behind Nordstrom.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 18.2% Revenue: $13.6 billion 1-year stock price change: -3.89% Store category: Fast food
As recently as 2011, Taco Bell (YUM) was struggling to keep competitor Chipotle (CMG) from taking its customers, with flat or negative same-store sales growth in each quarter that year. This changed in early 2012, when Taco Bell released the Doritos Locos taco, a hard taco with the flavor of Doritos nacho chips. That item help the company increase comparable sales in every quarter of 2012, as the company sold more than 1 million of them a day. In March, Taco Bell CEO Greg Creed told The Daily Beast the company had hired 15,000 workers just to meet demand for the Doritos Locos taco in 2012. Last year, the company's sales increased by $1 billion to $11.8 billion, and net income rose by roughly $300 million to $1.6 billion.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 18.9% Revenue: $123.1 billion 1-yr. stock price change: 27.56% Store category: Drugstore
CVS (CVS) is the top provider of prescriptions in the country, filling or managing more than 1 billion prescriptions a year. It has operates in 45 states, and 75% of the people in the markets it serves live within three miles one of the company's 7,400 retail stores. Last year, CVS estimated it gained millions of new customers following a dispute between Walgreens (WAG) and Express Scripts (ESRX), the prescription management service. Even after the dispute was resolved, CVS was able to retain many customers who used to fill prescriptions at Walgreens. In the first quarter of 2013, the company's revenue grew 5%, as same-store sales grew 4%.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 22.7% Revenue: $71.6 billion 1-year stock price change: 42.17% Store category: Drugstore
Despite CVS's gains, Walgreens is still the most visited drugstore in the country. According to RetailSails, the company has the most stores, at 7,890, and the largest average store, at 14,400 square feet, among all drugstore chains. The company's tenure in first place may not last, however, thanks to that now-resolved dispute with Express Scripts. The company spent nearly nine months without using Express Scripts, the largest prescription management service in the country, losing an estimated 60 million prescriptions to rivals. CVS estimates that it will retain roughly half of the Walgreen's customers it gained as a result of the squabble.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 22.8% Revenue: $2.5 billion 1-Year stock price change: 11.84% Store category: Fast food
In 2011, Wendy's (WEN) overall sales surpassed Burger King's, making it the second-largest burger chain in the U.S. But Wendy's growth has actually been quite modest as of late, with same-store sales in North America growing just 1.6% from 2011 to 2012. (In fact, Wendy's first-quarter profit just tumbled 83%.) Wendy's is in the process of remodeling many of its restaurants with more comfortable seating arrangements and flat-screen televisions. However, not all of its stores are getting upgraded. The company announced in March it was going to shutter as many as 130 underperforming stores. Last year, the company also made significant changes in its marketing strategy and menu in order to attract customers who have been lured in by chains such as Panera, which promotes healthier food at slightly higher prices.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 23.9% Revenue: $13.3 billion 1-year stock price change: 12.46% Store category: Coffee
There is a reason Starbucks (SBUX) is No. 1 in the coffee category: Sales in the U.S. grew by nearly 346% between 2001 and 2012, and the number of stores grew by 195%. The company has struggled in the U.S. in the past several years, but its stock has continued to rise as global sales have helped to pick up the slack. Worldwide, Starbucks revenue grew by 7% in 2012 compared to 2011. This included a 15% growth in the Asia/Pacific region. In its early years, the company did not place much emphasis on its food items. However, that has changed in recent years, especially following the purchase of Bay Area pastry chain La Boulangerie. However, some industry analysts remain skeptical of Starbucks' ability to compete for customers' breakfast purchases.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 24.3% Revenue: $2.0 billion 1-year stock price change: N/A Store category: Fast food
The last decade or so has been especially tumultuous for Burger King: It was taken private in two separate instances, in 2002 and in 2010, and became a public company again last June. The company hasn't performed well in years, with an average growth rate of -0.1% between 2001 and 2013, which allowed Wendy's to take its No. 2 burger chain title. A restructuring that began after the second buyout in 2010, in which many stores were sold to franchisees, has cut deeply into the company's sales. But not all news for Burger King is bad news: Nearly one quarter of Americans visited a Burger King in March.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 37.8% Revenue: N/A 1-year stock price change: N/A Store category: Fast food
Between 2001 and 2012, Subway's sales in the U.S. grew nearly 169%, while the number of stores grew nearly 93%. Subway is by far the largest fast food chain in the U.S., with almost 26,000 restaurants. The company has been able to fuel its large growth through both international expansion and a domestic focus on healthy eating, most notably using ads featuring Jared Fogle -- a man who lost an impressive amount of weight while regularly eating the company's sandwiches. In 2013, for the ninth year in a row, Subway received the highest score in the country in a Harris Poll EquiTrend study in the "quick service restaurants" category and was named brand of the year by that group.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 38.8% Revenue: $469.2 billion 1-year stock price change: 34.29% Store category: Discount & variety stores
Walmart (WMT) is by far the largest retailer in the U.S. and in many parts of the world. It was recently ranked No. 1 in the Fortune 500 after it reported more than $469 billion in worldwide revenue in 2012. While international markets are critical to growth, the U.S. market provides the majority of its revenue: U.S. sales comprise 62% of the company's sales. In the last five years, Walmart has added 450 U.S. stores, a 13% increase overall. However, according to Bloomberg, the company's U.S. workforce has dropped 1.4% in that time frame, leading customers to complain about a lack of inventory and longer check-out lines -- and to defect to rivals such as Target and Costco. In February, the American Customer Service Index ranked Walmart the lowest of all discount retailers, the sixth year in a row the chain has held or tied for the last place spot.
Percentage of U.S. population who visited in March: 49.0% Revenue: $27.6 billion 1-year stock price change: 6.92% Store category: Fast food<
Almost half of all Americans visited a McDonald's (MCD) in March, but, U.S. sales of $8.8 billion weren't even the company's largest revenue segment last year. Rather it was the company's sales in Europe of $10.8 billion. According to Technomic, McDonald's same-store sales grew at an annualized rate of nearly 5% from 2001 through 2012. However, this has slowed recently: The company's systemwide sales in the United States rose by just 0.3% from the year before in the final quarter of 2012. The company is already so large that its bottom line is deeply linked to global economic conditions, leaving it unable to raise prices for now. In order to boost sales, McDonald's CEO Bob Thompson told CNBC the company may try allowing U.S. stores to serve breakfast all day.