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Availability may be limited
Just because a retailer offers layaway doesn't mean it's available at every location. And some retailers offer layaway only on certain items.
Call first or go online before heading to the store. Websites will often spell out which locations and items are included in the program. Some stores also offer layaway through their online sites. But be careful because the rules can be different for online layaway than if you put something on layaway in the store.
In some cases, online layaway is run through a third-party vendor rather than the retailer, says Katherine Hutt, spokeswoman for the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the national umbrella organization for local bureaus.
While Kmart and Sears run their own online layaway programs, the online program offers only eight-week layaway. Their brick-and-mortar stores offer up to a 12-week option, according to the companies' websites.
Ask who is running the layaway transactions -- the store or a third party? Where is the merchandise stored? And how and when will it be conveyed to you?
Different programs have different rules
Layaway programs can vary widely. Every retailer has its own set of rules, policies and fees.
Even so, there are "a relatively low number" of consumer complaints, Hutt says.
Even complaints can be curbed if you "do your homework and ask a lot of questions beforehand," says Hutt.
Be sure to shop at merchants that have fixed layaway policies -- preferably in writing, says Samter. Some retailers post their layaway rules on their websites while others may have an actual contract or pamphlet you can read before you buy.
And if you're required to sign anything, read and understand it before you sign, says Daniel Butler, National Retail Federation's vice president of retail operations.
Know what your purchases will cost you if everything goes as planned. What could they cost if you incur extra fees or pay late? And if you change your mind or miss a payment, how much of your money will be returned?
Down payments or deposits are common
Most retailers require a down payment, says Butler. While some stores may set a minimum, others will let you select the amount, he says.
In addition, some retailers levy a nonrefundable fee for setting up layaway.
Consumers will also need to share some data -- usually the same information you'd share to write a check: photo ID, name, address and phone number, says Hutt.
The retailer shouldn't need your Social Security number, credit card number (unless that's how you're paying), bank information, income or employment information, she says.
Know the payment deadlines
With the last generation of layaway, payment rules were often pretty flexible. You paid whatever you could, whenever you could. And when you finally wiped out the bill, the item was yours.
Today, "consumers need to understand that it's a little bit different," says Butler. Retailers often set a maximum payoff period -- usually somewhere from 30 to 90 days, he says.
Payments could be for a fixed amount. And the plan could involve fixed due dates, similar to any other type of bill.
If there's a billing cycle, don't assume that means 30 days -- find out exactly when each payment is due, Butler says.
Also, check on whether there are any special payment requirements. Some stores have a fixed date by which holiday layaway must be complete, and others may set a deadline by which a set percentage of the bill has to be paid. For example, Wal-Mart's current layaway policy requires final payment and pickup on or before Dec. 12 at the same store where the layaway plan was initiated.
An important question for shoppers to ask is whether payments are due on a specific date, says Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action.
Then, determine if there are any additional payment deadlines that might come into play for your specific purchase.
What if I miss a payment?
Ask what happens to your money and your item if you can't make the payments or you change your mind.
"Find out what the fees are and whether there are penalties for late or missed payments," says Samter. "What happens to your contract?"
Also ask about returns. "Some stores have different return policies for layaway merchandise," she says.
Be sure to find out what happens if you make the payments but your items aren't there when you go to pick them up -- or worse, when it's crunch time. In those cases, it's reasonable to expect the retailer to make it right, for example, by giving you a refund or getting the item from another store location.
What if the price drops?
You put something on layaway and then the price drops 20 percent; now what?
Unfortunately, some stores lock in the price at the moment you put the item on layaway, says Butler. Retailers may reason they are giving up the option of selling that same item at that time and price to someone else, he says.
Others are more flexible and may allow a markdown on layaway items if the price drops.
This is where it is important to know the requirements of layaway, and factor those results into your price calculations. If you anticipate a price to drop over the next few weeks, how much extra will you likely pay if you're locking in today's price, plus paying layaway fees? At that price, is the purchase still worth what you're getting?
When you add up the cost of buying something on layaway, don't forget to compare that cost to your other payment options. What's the cost for the same item if you put it on a credit card? Or wait a few weeks and pay cash?
You put something on layaway and then the price drops 20 percent; now what?
Unfortunately, some stores lock in the price at the moment you place the item on layaway, says Butler. Retailers may reason they are giving up the option of selling that same item at that time and price to someone else, he says.
Others are more flexible and may allow a markdown on layaway items if the price decreases.
This is where it is important to know the rules of layaway, and factor those results into your price calculations. If you expect a price to drop over the next few weeks, how much extra will you likely pay if you're locking in today's price, plus paying layaway fees? At that cost, is the purchase still worth what you're getting?
When you tally up the price of buying something on layaway, don't forget to compare that cost to your other payment options. What's the tab for the same item if you put it on a credit card? Or wait a few weeks and pay cash?
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Your merchandise might not be held on-site
Some retailers wheel layaway items into the back room, where they stay until they are either claimed or returned to the shelves. Others store the merchandise off-site.
Find out where your selections will be kept and how long the store has to produce them after you make the final payment, says Katherine Hutt, a Council of Better Business Bureaus spokeswoman.
This is important because if you are placing items on layaway and need them by a specific date, such as Christmas Eve, you need to know the merchandise will be ready when you are.
With some stores, the minute you make the last payment, you can pick up your item and take it home. Other retailer layaway plans will allow a period of time between the date you pay off the item and the date the store must make it available to you -- often to arrange for transferring merchandise from where it's being warehoused. For example, Wal-Mart makes all layaway items must be picked up on or before Dec. 12.
Before you put any items on layaway, be sure to find out where your items will be held and whether there's a delay after paying for and retrieving the item.
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It's smart to save receipts
Stores will likely keep a record of your payment history, but you should also have your own records as a backup, says Nadine Samter, attorney with the Federal Trade Commission.
"You want to keep a record of your payments, independent of the company, so that you can establish that you've made all the payments," she says. "You don't want to rely on the merchant's records."
Save each receipt you get when you make a payment. If you're making them online, store them in a dedicated file or print them. With brick-and-mortar receipts, throw them into a big envelope, box or cookie jar -- something you won't lose. If you tend to lose things, make copies and store a set off-site, for example, in a file at work.
Also think about using a payment method that allows you to track and date your payments -- like a check or credit card, says Sherry. Putting each layaway payment on a credit card allows you to track each payment. But remember to immediately pay it off, she says. That way, you're not putting the entire debt on your card at once and just revolving it.
Using a credit card, Sherry says, obviously won't "work for everybody, but it will give you more dispute rights."
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