To gauge U.S. consumers' strain, one can look no further than the rows and rows of plastic bags awaiting layaway payments at Kmart discount retailer. They are filled with back-to-school basics — not just T-shirts and jeans but notebooks, magic markers and pencils.
It is unheard of for layaway rooms to be so packed at back-to-school time and for the packages to include relatively cheap school supplies.
A record number of Americans, shut off from credit and short on cash, are relying on Kmart's layaway program to pay for all of their kids' school needs, said Tom Aiello, a spokesman for Kmart's parent Sears Holdings Corp. Layaway allows shoppers to pay over time, interest-free, and pick up their merchandise when it's paid in full.
"It's a sight. In the past, we would see layaway start to pick up around Halloween" as people get a jump start for Christmas, said David Travis, manager of a Kmart store in Conover, North Carolina.
Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. said its layaway business is stronger than a year ago. And e-Layaway.com, which offers online layaway services for about 1,000 merchants, has seen its business double from the same time last year. Customers are setting aside even $25 calculators and $30 backpacks.
The word "layaway" had more than double the interest among U.S. searchers in August 2009 than it had in August 2008, according to Google Insights for Search.
Retailers that don't offer layaway are seeing financially strapped shoppers keep buying smaller amounts and using more cash than credit to pay.
"It just tells you that consumers have no money — even that $30 backpack is something they can't afford," said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research group.
Layaway has its roots in the Great Depression. It became passe in the past two decades with the rise of credit cards.
But the recession and financial crisis have caused banks to raise rates, pare credit limits and close accounts. For some consumers, layaway is the best option to budget for purchases.
Buying a little at a time and other signs of stress are casting a dark cloud over the holiday season, which accounts for as much as 40 percent of annual sales for many retailers.
Many economists expect to see another holiday season of sales declines, on top of last year's Christmas period, the weakest in several decades. That's raising more doubts about an economic recovery because consumer spending accounts for 70 percent of economic activity.
Kmart's Travis predicts this Christmas will be a "record-setting" layaway season.
The worries about a weak Christmas come amid a back-to-school season that the National Retail Federation expects will see families cut 8 percent of spending from last year.
Tracey Y. Chandler, a North Carolina resident, started using layaway at the local Kmart last Christmas as the U.S. economy soured and again this past summer to furnish her 8-year-old daughter's bedroom.
Last weekend, she put aside $150 worth of back-to-school clothes at Sears stores.
"The job market is too unstable to take on additional debt," said Chandler. She and her husband both work as teachers' assistants, and she fears they could be casualties of budget cuts.
Sears Holdings brought back layaway to its namesake department stores last holiday season after a two-decade hiatus. This year, the company also is copying old-fashioned Christmas club bank accounts to help its Kmart and Sears customers save for gifts.
Competitors have been slow to follow, which may give stores like Sears who have them an edge.
Wal-Mart discontinued the practice in 2006, except for jewelry, citing rising costs and falling demand. TJX Cos., which offers layaway in some of its Marshalls and T.J. Maxx stores and nearly all of its A.J. Wright locations, declined to comment on its layaway business.
Melissa Garcia, who writes a popular blog called Consumerqueen.com, said more moms are asking stores to bring back layaway this season. "They just don't want to disappoint their kids," she said.
For nearly a year, frugality has been the overriding trend in consumer spending. Shoppers have pushed up sales of store brand foods and paper towels, turned coupon use into a hobby and held out for 70 percent off sales and gently used second-hand clothing and housewares.
Stores have reported spikes in spending around common paydays, showing how stretched people are, and shoppers are even ditching more items at the checkout as they recalibrate what they really need.
Those are big worries for retailers, some of which get up to 40 percent of their revenue from holiday sales.
Mark Vitner, a senior economist with Wells Fargo, estimates that total holiday sales will be down 3.5 percent, on top of a 2.5 percent drop a year ago.
Michael Dart, a retail strategist for consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates, says that for many Americans, their economic situation only worsened from last Christmas.
"Last holiday, shoppers were in shock" with worry from the financial meltdown. This year customers' problems are more concrete: job losses, reduced hours and reduced or unavailable credit. "This holiday, they're facing the reality."