The Christmas shopping season is now officially under way. A number of major stores, including Wal-Mart, Toys R Us and Sears, have already rolled out their holiday layaway programs.
"A lot of retailers expect this to be another big year for layaway," said Kathy Grannis, senior director of media relations at the National Retail Federation. "Layaway has re-emerged as a budget-savvy way to keep family spending in check during the holiday shopping season."
Wal-Mart is touting its "free" holiday layaway program in newspaper and TV ads. Last year, it charged a $5 layaway fee but "refunded" it to customers in the form of a store gift card.
"This year, it's literally free," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Veronica Marshall. " There are no opening fees and no gift card reimbursements."
Wal-Mart does charge $10 for canceling a layaway order, though—a fee the company reinstated after eliminating it last year.
(Read more: Hurry up, Santa! Holiday deals start now )
"The idea of having a $10 cancellation fee was based on feedback from our customers," Marshall said. "They told us they would rather pay nothing down to open their layaway account and apply that money to their actual purchases, and pay a cancellation fee on the back end if they had to do that."
It's important for shoppers to check, as many stores impose a cancellation fee, including Toys R Us ($10) and Sears ($15).
Consumer advocate Edgar Dworsky, founder of ConsumerWorld.org, has no problem with a small cancellation penalty, as it discourages people from using layaway frivolously. But he would like to see better disclosure.
"The cancellation fee is often hidden in the fine print, which could be easily missed by someone who sees 'Free Layaway' in the bold headline and does not read all the details about the program—which is most of us," Dworsky said.
(Read more: Credit card confusion: How do I earn rewards? )
And there is still a good deal of fine print associated with layaway programs.
"Layaway used to be simple, but not anymore," he told me. "There are lots of rules and there is no uniformity. Even with Kmart and Sears different rules apply, and they're owned by the same company."