FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 14, 2011
SCHUMER REVEALS: NEW LAYAWAY PROGRAMS OFFERED BY RETAILERS THIS HOLIDAY SEASON COULD HIT SHOPPERS WITH MORE IN FEES AND INTEREST THAN THE HIGHEST- INTEREST CREDIT CARDS
U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today revealed that fees associated with recently reinstated holiday shopping layaway programs for popular retailers 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.
Christmas layaway programs allow shoppers to effectively 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 layaway 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. 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. 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. 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.
“These layaway programs are nothing more than hideaways for sky-high interest rates that consumers would never tolerate with a credit card,” said Schumer. “Retailers know this is going to be a difficult Christmas shopping season for families who are having a tough time making ends meet. 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.”
Schumer today 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.
Layaway programs offer customers the ability to make purchases over a period of time, usually weeks or months, with a down payment and service fee. While attractive for consumers who do not have enough money to make large purchases in time for the holiday season, these programs actually end up costing consumers far more than credit cards with the highest interest rates, and in many cases exceed state interest rate caps. New York’s usury laws, for example, prohibit interest rates above 16%, and many other states cap interest rates at 35%. 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.
Here is 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
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.
“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,” continued Schumer.
November 13, 2011
Dear Ms. Kennedy and Mr. Shay,
I am writing to express concern about holiday layaway programs at some of your member stores. Specifically, I am concerned that the fees charged in connection with these programs, which are very similar to short term loans, can add up to the equivalent of interest rates well above standard credit card interest rates, and in many cases higher than state usury laws would permit were these technically deemed to be credit transactions.
Recent reports indicate that Wal-Mart, Sears and others have recently reinstated layaway programs for the Holiday shopping season. These programs typically require a down payment of 10% - 20%, together with an upfront service charge – generally five dollars. Customers pay the balance over time, and pick up the item when the balance is paid in full. In many cases, stores are charging hefty cancellation fees if a customer changes his or her mind, and do not refund the service fee. With Christmas just over a month away, many of these loans will be extremely short term loans, as most of the programs require customers to make final payments and pick up the goods prior to the Holidays. This means that even a seemingly small $5 service charge can be the equivalent of interest rates well above standard credit card interest rates. At Wal-Mart, for instance, consumers will pay the equivalent of at least a 44% annual percentage rate (APR) for a $100 purchase, according to one recent report.
I respectfully request that your organizations work with all your member stores with layaway plans to clearly and predominately display the annual percentage rate equivalent of the fees for each program, both at the point of sale and on any website or other promotional material advertising these programs. While I understand that the APR-equivalent would vary based on the length of the layaway and the amount of the unpaid balance, stores could still materially aid consumers by providing APR-equivalents for representative transactions. This would allow consumers to compare the cost of using a layaway program with the cost of using their credit card.
If stores do not voluntarily adopt clear disclosure practices, I will request that the Federal Trade Commission adopt rules requiring such disclosure in connection with any layaway.
With unemployment still above 9%, and middle class families already struggling to stretch their paychecks, the last thing they can afford is to pay unnecessary fees for layaway programs that trap them into buying items by charging even higher fees if they want to change their minds.
I look forward to working with you and your member stores to ensure consumers are able to make well-informed decisions when shopping this Holiday season.