Some stores offering free layaway plans

It's still summer, but the nation's retailers are already thinking about the holiday shopping season and how the economy might hurt sales.

So they're rolling out new and improved layaway programs. At some big-name stores, layaway is now free; there's no service charge.

Edgar Dworsky, founder of is a big believer in layaway.

"People go out, charge stuff on their credit cards and only later do they worry about how they are going to pay for it. So it's really a very smart way to budget you money," he said.

And layaway is getting better. It's now free at Kmart through Nov. 17, whether you shop at a store or online. And there's no
minimum transaction amount required.

"We made this move because this is what our customers asked us to do. Customers really prefer this to other methods of financing," said Jai Holtz, vice president with Sears Holdings, which owns both K-Mart and Sears. He tells me Sears is planning to launch a similar free layaway program for holiday shoppers starting in October.

Layaway is already free at Toys R Us from now through Oct. 31. The offer applies to most merchandise in Toys R Us and Babies R Us stores.

Walmart will reduce its layaway service fee from $15 to $5 starting Sunday, Sept. 16. The lower fee is good through mid-December.

By the way, that $5 layaway fee will be refunded to customers who make their final payment -- in the form of a Walmart gift card. So for them, the layaway program is really free.

A few tips. If you do layaway, do it right. Check on the down payment -- how much? And find out what happens if the item goes on sale while still on layaway. Will you get the lower price?

Layaway programs have a lot of rules, such as when to pay and where to pay. There's also a deadline for picking up the item. Make sure you understand them. Break any of the rules and that layaway will be canceled and at most stores, you'll be charged a cancellation fee.