Store layaway programs made a comeback last holiday season, as more recession-scarred shoppers paid for those Santa sweaters and flat screen TVs in installments.
Now, Sears (SHLD) is adding a new twist to the concept by letting consumers put their summer trip to Cancun on layaway, too, via its new site, Searsvacations.com.
It's just another sign of the times, as retailers respond to the nation's protracted economic funk by scrambling to find new ways to lure in penny-pinching consumers.
Walmart (WMT), for example, has made a play to gain ground among its many unbanked consumers with programs such as "Pay With Cash," which allows shoppers to pay in cash for online orders, offering low-fee, prepaid debit cards, and by expanding its inexpensive check cashing services.
In this case, the new program is likewise a matter of Sears knowing its audience.
"The Sears customer is not the most affluent, and it's the mid- to low-income consumers that have been hit hardest by the recession," Louis Hyman, an economic historian and assistant professor of history at Cornell University, tells DailyFinance.
Indeed, Sears entered the travel business expressly to offer vacation packages developed with its value-minded shoppers in mind, Shannelle Armstrong-Fowler, director of public relations for Sears, tells DailyFinance.
On the full-service travel website, consumers can book flights, hotels, resorts, cruises, car rentals and vacation packages without a booking fee, and a number of Sears' travel offers come with a "Best Price Guarantee."
As an introductory promotion, Sears is selling 100 vacation packages starting at $399 until July 31.
Offering the vacations on layaway is a flexible payment option "consistent with what our customers expect from Sears," Armstrong-Fowler says.
Since the start of the recession, banks have become cautious about extending credit to lower-income shoppers -- so retailers have jumped on reviving the layaway model, Hyman says.
And unlike Sears' product layaway program, where shoppers pay a $5 to $10 initial fee, SearsVacations waives the sign-up cost.
The length of Sears' layaway payment plans is based on which package a customer chooses. For example, "Some of the cruise lines require payment in full within 60 and 90 days of leaving," Armstrong Fowler says.
Deal -- or No Deal?
But buyer beware, Hyman warns. Consumers would be better off putting that layaway money into a savings account where it would at least earn some interest, Hyman argues.
Shoppers could also save up on their own to buy products without paying the layaway sign-up fee -- which in some cases can add more to the overall cost than paying for it on a credit card with a high interest rate, he says. That point is moot in this case, though, as SearsVacations is waiving the service fee.
In fact, responds Armstrong-Fowler, the misconception that layaway plans mean shoppers end up paying more for their purchases than they're worth has been fostered by some long-abandoned retail practices.
In decades past, layaway programs -- largely run by independent merchants -- charged shoppers interest to use the service. The programs offered today by national chains such as Sears do not, she says.
And while much has been made of Sears offering a layaway option for vacations, of all things, the idea is not so novel after all.
Travel companies have allowed people to pay for their trips in down-payment installments for ages, "they just don't call it layaway," Armstrong-Fowler says.
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