Unlike cash, there can be fees. And unlike credit, you don't get your items when you walk out the store door. Instead, with layaway, shoppers get locked in today to get goods tomorrow, for payment tomorrow.
The heyday for layaway was the Great Depression. With the explosion of credit cards it had largely disappeared from stores until the Great Recession starting in 2008. After the credit and job market tightened, retailers have brought back layaway or expanded existing programs.
More from Today.com:
15 hot toys for the holiday season from Toys 'R' Us
Find out which restaurant meals are healthier
Olive Garden defends unlimited breadstick policy
Layaway usually lets shoppers put just $10 or 10 percent down to save a cart of goodies behind the counter. After making a series of regular payments over several weeks, they can retrieve their basket. If they change their mind and need their money back, or they don't make payments frequently enough, there's a small cancellation fee. For consumers without the cash or credit to make Christmas happen, layaway is their last hope.
With Americans carrying $28 billion on their credit cards, more than they have in 6 years, several retailers have announced they were easing up on rules and doing away with some costs. In a cheeky "not a Christmas commercial," Kmart announced "no money down layaway" through September 20th. Toys R Us is again waiving its $5 service fee to start a layaway plan. Wal-Mart has also waived its initiation fee, along with increasing the numbers of toys, and adding new eligible categories, like furniture, infant toys and car seats.
Read MoreApple will steal Christmas mall business: Analyst
In another sign of layaway's expanding appeal and opportunity for retailers, this year Toys R Us announced it launched an online layaway program.