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We encourage our readers to shop smart. Large amounts of debt created during the holiday shopping season often puts families in a bind and the interest on credit cards can add exponentially to the cost of holiday gifts. Consumer advocates have said store layaway can be a better option than credit in many cases.

Store layaway plans allow consumers to purchase gifts without having to pay the full amount at the time of purchase and without having to run up large amounts of credit card debt.

With most plans being offered now, buyers must typically make a down payment of 10 to 20 percent and pay any service or plan fees for the store to hold the item for them, according to the Better Business Bureau. The customer then has typically 30 to 90 days to make periodic payments to pay off the balance. Some online retailers offer layaway options as well with various terms, some of which include the use of debit cards over a specified period before products are shipped.

While the BBB has said layaway services can be a great alternative to using credit cards, the bureau also cautions consumers to read the fine print and make sure what the layaway terms are. The BBB has offered these words of caution:

• Read the fine print. Ask the company for a written contract for the layaway and read it carefully. Keep in mind that layaway policies may differ from one company to another.

• Layaway period. Ask how long the item can be on layaway. The length of time that items can be placed on hold varies from store to store.

• Merchandise holds. Find out if the item being placed on layaway is put on hold immediately or when it is paid for. Some consumers were informed that the product they were paying on had been sold to another consumer.

• Payment dates. Make sure you know the specific date when each payment must be made. If a payment is not made by that date, the layaway item can be sold to another consumer or returned to stock, and you may lose the money you have paid down on it.

• Refund policy. Read the company's refund policy carefully. Retailers' policies may differ: some give all the money back; others may charge a non-refundable service or restocking fee; still others may offer a merchant credit for the amount you paid.

• Order date. If the product is not in stock, be sure to find out when it will be ordered. Will it be ordered when the layaway is opened or when the last payment is made? Consumers report that some items are not ordered until after the last payment is made and then the product is not available

• Delivery dates. If the product you have on layaway has to be delivered to you, make sure the delivery date is listed in the contract. Consumers report delivery delays due to the product not being available or other consumers having their delivery dates scheduled before layaway customers.

• Layaway fees. Make sure you find out if there are any additional fees to layaway merchandise. You should also find out if the additional fees will be refunded if you cancel the layaway.

So, whether paying in cash, check, credit or using a layaway plan, readers are encouraged to shop locally whenever possible, supporting businesses and keeping sales tax dollars at home.

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This editorial is from the Valdosta (Georgia) Daily Times via The Associated Press.


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