PhotoYou think retailers are doing you a favor be reinstating layaway programs?  Senator Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) doesn't think so.

Schumer says fees associated with holiday shopping layaway programs  can exceed even the highest interest rates charged by credit card companies.

Citing the prospect of layaway fees that are the equivalent of an 81% credit card APR for a $100 purchase, Schumer called on the Retail Industry Leaders Association (RILA) and the National Retail Federation (NRF) to work with member stores to clearly and prominently display the sky-high interest rate equivalent of the fees these programs charge so that consumers are better informed about the total price they’re paying.

“These layaway programs are nothing more than hideaways for sky-high interest rates that consumers would never tolerate with a credit card,” said Schumer. “The holiday season is supposed to be about giving and not taking, but these layaway programs are taking advantage of people and charging them outrageous interest rates, under the guise of making it easier and more affordable to shop.”

Christmas layaway programs allow shoppers to enter into a payment plan with stores in order to make holiday purchases by making an initial down payment and paying a service fee, then paying the rest of the bill over a period of time, picking up the item when the bill is paid in full.

These programs, however, charge fees that when calculated as an interest rate, would far exceed even the highest rates charged by credit card companies – and in many cases would violate state usury laws, Schumer said.

At Toys ‘R’ Us for example, consumers will pay the equivalent of at least an 81% annual percentage rate (APR) for a $100 purchase they put on layaway today, the New York Democrat charged. Because stores refer to these charges as ‘fees’ instead of interest rates, it is difficult for consumers to compare the effective cost of layaway programs to the cost of using a credit card.

The national average APR for a credit card in the United States is currently 14.99%, according to Creditcards.com. The highest average APR for those with bad credit is 24.96%. Layaway programs almost always end up costing consumers far more than that, Schumer charged.

To add insult to injury, when a customer wants to cancel a layaway purchase, retailers often do not refund service fees and also charge additional cancellation fees of $10 or more, Schumer said.

FTC action possible

Schumer said that these "sky-high fees" should be prominently disclosed in their APR equivalent so consumers can easily determine the most cost-effective method of making large purchases.

Schumer also made clear if retailers fail to act, he would ask the Federal Trade Commission to look into whether the programs are deceptive and misleading.

Schumer provided a breakdown of the layaway programs being introduced at three major retailers in the United States and what the equivalent APR would be for three popular gift purchases this year:

Walmart: The layaway program offered by Walmart requires a $5 service fee for a payment plan, a 10% down payment, and requires final payment and pickup by December 16. Walmart also has a layaway cancellation fee of $10.

·      A shopper who purchases a $69 Let’s Rock Elmo doll today will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 105% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $99 Leapfrog Leap Pad today will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 71% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $199 NOOK Color today will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 34% APR

Sears: The layaway program offered by Sears requires a $5 service fee, 20% or $20 down payment (whichever is higher), and requires final payment by Christmas. Sears also has a cancellation fee of $15.

·      A shopper who purchases a $69 Let’s Rock Elmo doll today at Sears will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 136% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $99 Leapfrog Leap Pad today at Sears will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 81% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $199 NOOK Color today at Sears will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 39% APR

Toys ‘R’ Us: The layaway program offered by Toys ‘R’ Us requires a $5 service fee, a 20% down payment, and requires final payment/pickup by Christmas. Toys ‘R’ Us also has a cancellation fee of $10.

·      A shopper who purchases a $69 Let’s Rock Elmo doll today at Toys ‘R’ Us will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 120% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $99 Leapfrog Leap Pad today at Toys ‘R’ Us will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 81% APR

·      A shopper who purchases a $199 NOOK Color at Toys ‘R’ Us will pay fees equivalent to interest payments for a credit card with a 39% APR

"A responsibility" 

“Retailers have a responsibility to be forthright about the fees associated with layaway and should prominently display them in terms the consumer understands, so they can make informed decisions about the best way to pay for holiday shopping this year,” Schumer said.

In his letter to retailers, Schumer called on the major retail associations to work with their member stores to ensure that they prominently display the APR equivalent of the fees at the point of sale and provide consumers with comparisons.

Schumer noted if they don’t voluntarily implement such a program, he would ask the FTC to open an investigation into whether the fee structure is deceptive and misleading.  Schumer said that these layaway programs often deceive consumers by referring to the program in terms of fees instead of interest rates, making it difficult to compare to interest rates consumers are familiar with on their credit card.

 


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