Before there was VISA and Mastercard, there was layaway. Consumers who didn't have quite enough cash on hand to make a large purchase could put the item "on layaway."

That meant the merchant would set the item aside for the consumer until they came in and paid for it. Often the consumer would come in weekly and put down small amounts until the item was paid for.

In this new era of tight credit, retailers like Kmart and TJ Maxx have experienced a sharp increase in customer demand for their layaway programs, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. Holiday consumers see layaway as a payment alternative at a time when credit card companies are reducing purchase limits and access to loans is tightening amid the country's ongoing financial crisis.

"People are shying away from credit cards, because maybe their limits have been reduced or they simply don't want to carry any debt ahead of an economic recession," said Bob Robicheaux, Ph.D., chairman of the UAB Department of Marketing and Industrial Distribution. "And if a purchase can't be put on credit because it's restricted, then the best option is to use layaway and put $10 dollars down then make equal payments toward the purchase in the weeks before the holidays."

Robicheaux said smaller retailers are more likely to offer layaway programs because those businesses know their customer personally, leading to a degree of trust between buyer and seller. Companies offering layaway this holiday season could see a competitive advantage over larger retailers that have done away with the service.

"Companies with layaway programs are essentially offering their customers free credit, and many consumers are likely to take advantage of that in these economic times," Robicheaux said. "So I see a distinct advantage for some retailers to capitalize on."

Layaway, as a practice, was mostly abandoned by many retailers as the popularity of credit cards surged in the 1990s.