Marbella: Layaway returns at Walmart, at just the right time

In the annals of holiday nostalgia, it's hardly up there in "Christmas Carol" territory.

Still, the news that layaways are back has me feeling less Scrooge-like than I usually do when the holiday spend-a-thon season approaches.

Major retailers like Walmart, you might have seen, are bringing back or expanding their layaway programs — those old, pay-by-installment plans that went by the wayside when credit cards became all too common.

I'm not really a layaway type myself, but I'm glad it's made a comeback anyway. Somehow, it seems like the right time for the layaway to have a moment, on any number of levels.

For one thing, a layaway is a paying forward rather than paying backward process. I guess, for the PayPal generation, I should explain how layaways work: You take your item to a counter, put a down payment on it and agree to make regular installments until you hit the purchase price. Then, and only then, do you take possession of said item.

I know, it all seems so quaint when everyone knows you can just swipe your credit card at the cashier or click on "pay now" online but, actually, pay later. Sometimes, way later, not to mention way more if you let interest and late fees pile up on unpaid credit card balances.

Layaways, of course, aren't free: Generally, you have to pay a service fee — Walmart's is $5 — and penalties if you fail to make payments by the specified times or decide you don't want it after all.

But I have to think that the act of actually taking a product to a counter and filling out the paperwork for how you're going to pay for it makes it more tangible, more likely that you're going to better assess whether you can actually afford this shiny new whatever.

Plus, you've taken the instant gratification out of the whole transaction, since you don't get what you "bought" until you've actually paid for it in full and not just promised to do so at some point down the road.

The other reason the layaway seems so appealing is it strikes me as a vote of confidence in the future. By laying something away, you're acknowledging you may not have all of the money for it now, but you expect payment by payment to get there by December. (Walmart's layaway, discontinued in 2006, will only run through Dec. 16 for now.)

And in fact, there are indications that consumer confidence is up this month, and reasons to believe it's justified, from fewer people filing for initial jobless benefits to more stuff being trucked around the country. Of course, we're far from out of the woods and these positive trends could prove fleeting, but feeling confident enough to buy a few more presents this year can only help stimulate our poor, sluggish economy.

As long, that is, as you can actually pay for them. Layaways strike me as a good midway point, between not spending a cent until you've saved up the entire purchase price, and swiping away like there's no tomorrow.

Maybe there's just something comfortingly old-fashioned about the layaway. It reminds me of a time when shopping wasn't so much a chore as part of the fun of the holidays. Maybe I saw this in a movie, but I think I remember a time when I actually enjoyed thumbing through catalogs or wandering store aisles.

But somewhere along the way, holiday shopping became this pressurized affair. Every year, there is some "it" gift, and whatever company made it also made sure to make too few of them to heighten the frenzy. And Black Friday became not so much a fun jostle as a frightening rampage, with desperate rather than joyful shoppers.

By itself, the layaway won't change all that. And surely there will be those who fill up the storage areas of stores rather than their own credit card bills with items they'll still never be able to afford.

Still, this is one ghost of Christmas past whose visit doesn't fill me with fear.

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