Take advantage of retailers' seasonal incentives

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With the heart of the Christmas shopping season fast approaching, retailers are pulling out all the stops in an effort to get shoppers through their doors, even now, with Black Friday over.

Retailers hope more layaway options and more conveniences, such as personal shopping and gift registries, will draw in cash-conscious consumers.

Retail experts are advising consumers to shop early this year to get the best prices on the best selections. Retailers will be reluctant to restock their shelves, they say, with the economy only showing weak signs of recovery.

THE RETURN OF LAYAWAY: Layaway is an old concept with a new clientele — and more stores are expanding their services to include it as they prepare for an "average" shopping season.

In recent years, some of the most recognizable retailers, such as Kmart, Sears and Best Buy, have revived layaway.

This year, the world's largest retailer, Walmart, hopped onboard. And Toys "R" Us, which launched a layaway program in 2009 limited only to big-ticket items, is letting shoppers put almost any toy on layaway at its stores this year.

Layaway allows customers to pay for large purchases in installments before Christmas, without having to worry about paying interest on credit cards after the holiday. That is important because the strained economy has made getting credit harder for many families.

The practice also can help shoppers stick to a budget, retail experts said, by having stores set aside only the amount of merchandise they can get paid off before the holiday. For more on this option, see the accompanying stories.

RED CARPET CONVENIENCE: Shoppers, of course, are the beneficiaries of retailers' hand-wringing. Not only do they have more opportunities to get the lowest prices, they also are getting the red-carpet treatment from some retailers.

Learning Express Toys of Columbia, S.C., is offering a holiday gift registry for its customers.

The store helps devise a list of preferred items for the child on the list, then holds it so friends or family can come in, see the list and make a selection the child wants.

With so many options this year, Christmas shopping could be over for some consumers by the time December rolls around.

That could leave last-minute shoppers scrambling to find what they want.

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