Shhhh. Did you hear that? It was a creaking sound, and I am pretty positive it was Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton turning over in his grave. When he founded the store in 1962, Walton made sure Wal-Mart offered layaway to the poor country consumers in Arkansas, where the behemoth chain still is headquartered. Yesterday, Wal-Mart announced that it is doing away with layaway. Not enough demand for it and too costly to operate, Wal-Mart said.
I grew up in the Missouri Bootheel, that part of Missouri that hangs off the bottom of Southeast Missouri into Arkansas territory, so I know something of the people who live in those parts. Let me put it this way: Bill Gates does not have a second (or third) home there.
I was astounded when I heard on the news last night that Wal-Mart was dumping layaway. So was my mom. “Why, I always had a layaway somewhere,” Mother said, as we discussed it. No kidding. When my family knew that my brother or I had a special occasion coming up — one for which we would need new clothes — we often found the dress or sports coat that we needed and wanted, then put it on layaway. We paid a little every week, or maybe it was every two weeks. And by the time, the event rolled around, our garment was paid for, we got it out of layaway and went to the dance, or whatever it was, well-dressed. No interest. No penalites. $5 a week. $10 a week. Whatever we could afford.
Today, not that many people lay things away. Instead, most people go into debt by pulling out their VISA or MasterCard. But I reported in this space recently that America´s middle class is disappearing. And as a result, retail experts advise retailers to aim for high-end or low-end shoppers and to stay away from the shrinking middle-level shopper.
A good many people on the low end of the shopping spectrum do not have charge cards, but they have kids, they have lives, they have church functions and school functions. They need clothes and household goods. I think that retailers — such as Wal-Mart — should promote layaway as a viable method of buying merchandise instead of discarding the option. Even if only a small percentage of customers use it, that is a group of people who would — in my opinion — appreciate it and benefit from it.
If your store appeals to low-end shoppers and you don’t offer layaway, perhaps you should consider it. Sometimes it is better to do the right thing rather than the expedient thing. From what I have read of Sam Walton, he would agree.