Posted by Dale Buss on September 9, 2011 01:02 PM
If there's one thing that Wal-Mart has always been good at, it's gauging the zeitgeist of the American consumer. That's why it emphasized low prices and huge selection in the first place, why it tries to keep smutty DVDs out of its stores, why it finally saw the light and became a good environmental corporate citizen, and why it recently did an about-face on its merchandising-simplification strategy.
But you don't have to be the world's largest or most in-tune retailer to understand that American shoppers are hurting these days, especially the salt-of-the-earth clientele of Walmart.
Thus it is hardly surprising that, with the U.S. economy stagnating and consumer confidence fading like the summer, Walmart is bringing back the hoary practice of layaway, just in time for the Christmas season. Walmart stores will begin offering layaway again next month on toys or electronics for total purchase prices of $50 or more, a 10-percent down payment and a non-refundable $5 fee, and final payments due by December 16.
Wal-Mart had eliminated layaway five years ago except for jewelry purchases; among the reasons were the fact that layaway added to back-room clutter. But rivals including Sears and Toys "R" Us have resumed broader layaway programs in recent years and reported a subsequent boost in sales.
Besides, American consumers clearly seem desperate for more help, and fewer want to rely on credit cards. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke may be expressing puzzlement about why consumers are so dispirited, but the reasons are pretty clear. According to a new study by Boston Consulting Group, American women are feeling peak financial anxieties these days. Partly as a result, for the first time in three years, U.S. quick-serve restaurant operators have been growing more pessimistic about same-outlet sales instead of optimistic.
Bringing layaway plan back to Walmart shoppers won't reverse all this any more than a new federal stimulus would. But if it can help people make it through the holidays, Wal-Mart will have a winner.