In Trying Times, Many Find Their Way Back to the Layaway Line

Comedian Steve Harvey uses the Greenbelt K-mart as a backdrop for his live radio morning show focusing on how the downturn in the economy has sparked a resurgence in the old layaway payment plan.
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Layaway, that financial relic of the past, taught us delayed gratification.

Layaway taught easy lessons: If you don't have it, you wait.

Lessons about balancing desire and necessity, dangling before us "wants" like the blue dress with the rhinestones and the pretty-though-fake pearl earrings.

The layaway counter was always in the back of the store, where you lined up and waited among other everyday people, worried about stretching paychecks. Waiting on the backs of worn heels with people who knew how to squeeze 50 cents out of a dime. There was no shame in waiting in the layaway line.

When it came your turn, the clerk made you fill out a form with carbon paper. Tore off a copy for you. Put your stuff in a plastic bag with a wire hanger. And from this side of the counter, you could see her hang what was now your stuff, but not in your possession, in the back of the store.

And there it waited until you were "good for it," had enough money to pay it off.

Sometime in the '90s when the economy was rolling, layaway lost its prominence. People started buying on plastic, damning the warnings that credit could lead them down a slippery slope. Now with tough times, layaway has made a comeback. Kind of like a comic book hero, leaping from the dark shadows of hard times to give people a little hope: that they can still get what they want even if they don't have the money now.

At the Kmart in Greenbelt on Tuesday morning, with radio personality Steve Harvey there to promote layaway, people shopped amid the lingering damp smell of linoleum floors recently mopped with disinfectant. When their carts were full, they lined up at the layaway counter, back near the restrooms, washing machines and dishwashers. Past the Little Debbie Snack Center. Past the microwave pasta cooker. Around the corner from the folding guest bed with the steel frame.

Past the sidewalk sale and the woman who has diabetic feet and the little girl in a pink coat sitting in a shopping cart, trying to behave while sucking her fingers. The sign at the layaway counter says all you need is a minimum $10 payment or 10 percent of the purchase, whichever is greater. That's all you need, and the store will hold your "wants" for 8 weeks, allowing you to pay a little bit at a time. "Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet," as the saying has it.

This is what delayed gratification looks like in a recession.

"I was visiting my sister, and she had this beautiful bedspread. She said she'd put it on layaway. Just because you don't have a lot of money doesn't mean you don't want quality," says Valerie Smith, 42, of Capitol Heights.

Smith was riffed from her job in the D.C. government. She just put a Wii game on layaway. "I don't have the $249. But I can give them $20 and pay on it over time."

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