Layaway helps penny pinchers

Carter McNab, 3, makes change as she plays with toys at Wonder Works in Mount Pleasant. Her mother, Greer McNab, has several items, including this play set, on layaway for Christmas.

Grace Beahm

As soon as they get in the toy store, 3-year-old Carter McNab sits Mom down to play at the ice cream stand. Mom knows the routine.

"May I please have some mint chocolate chip?" she asks sweetly.

Carter handles the cash register with a grown-up ease. She counts the fake bills, grabs a plastic nickel. "OK, ma'am," Carter says professionally, discreetly sliding over the nickel so mom can pay. Carter grabs the magnetized toy scoop, scoops up the magnetized plastic serving of ice cream, and places it in the play cone.

She accepts the nickel with a smile as big as a Christmas tree.

"How could I not get her this ice cream stand?" Greer McNab, Carter's mom, says later.

But the total at the cash register can be daunting. Especially this year. Greer McNab is an accountant, but she's been a stay-at-home mom since her baby, Jackson, was born. Money is tight, very tight, she says.

Her solution is something her mom could have told her -- layaway. With the bad economy weighing on so many people's wallet, the old general store tradition has come back big time.

"I have to think about everything I'm buying, so I can feed us. And these are precious years (with the children). I can't give that up," she said.

At Wonder Works in Mount Pleasant, stacks of brown-wrapped layaways fill the high wall shelf ringing the place. More stacks crowd the office. And there's another wall of stacked layaways in an office site nearby.

"I'm actually running out of room where I put layaway," said Christine Osborne, as she scurried around her store, where the McNabs shopped. Her layaway business is up nearly 25 percent from last year, when it was up from the year before.

The layaway business "has really taken off in the last two months," said Jim Putzel, general manager of Sears Grand in Ladson, which added "big ticket" electronics items like televisions and gaming systems to its layaway offerings this year.

Layaway buyers pick out the item they want and make a down payment to have the store set it aside, so they can keep making payments until it's bought. Sometimes a fee and a cancellation fee are charged.

Grandma did it; mom might well have. With the magic of easy credit, a lot of people today didn't. The practice got to be old-fashioned and a little, eh, declasse.

One by one, most of the "big box" stores quit offering it. Walmart raised a stink and a nationwide petition protest in 2006 when it stopped the practice, citing the cost of staffing the department.

Then the economy went down the hole, jobs and disposable income dropped and some folks decided to avoid depending on credit cards. All of sudden, grandma looked a lot smarter.

"I think increasingly people don't like to incur debt," said Tom Aiello, public relations vice president of Sears. Kmart, one of the few "big box" stores that hung on to layaway, reintroduced it to Sears when it bought the chain in 2004.

Greer McNab doesn't hesitate about telling friends she has gifts on layaway. "No, I'm almost selling it," she said.

"I think everyone is feeling the strain this year. I think layaway is a lot more socially acceptable at this point. Everybody's mind-set is a little different," said Marnie Massenet, of Mount Pleasant, a nursing student who's using layaway to pay for a Christmas for her three daughters.

"It's easy," said Joyce Barber, of James Island. "You get what you want before it's gone. You don't have to pay for everything at once, and I can't bring the presents home anyway because the grandchildren are always around and nosy."

This year, layaway has an extra incentive going for it. Economics and safety crackdowns have closed or slowed a number of toy manufacturers. The shelves are thinning more quickly.

Osborne offers seasonal layaway as a way to compete with the "big boxes." She starts early, doesn't charge a fee and adds little touches such as gift-wrapping the items. It's no small reason for an improvement in sales this year after a tough holiday season when the economy went bad in 2008.

This year, she began offering layaway in September, because her customers already were asking.

"They want to come get it, and they don't want to come in December when the shelves are empty," she said. "We usually sell to the bare walls."