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Wal-Mart's holiday layaway launches this week

Wal-Mart shoppers will be able get a head start on their holiday purchases this year, when the world's largest retailer kicks off its layaway program Friday—two weeks earlier than in 2014.

The timing shift coincides with the launch of the new "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" merchandise, which goes on sale Friday, Sept. 4.

It will also include merchandise tied to the discounter's inaugural "Toy Week" event, designed to drum up excitement in the days prior to the "Star Wars" launch, and give a sneak peak at the holiday's top toys.

The movie franchise's new installment has been widely anticipated by the toy industry, which is leaning on its merchandise to drive sales over the holidays.

Star Wars trading discs
Source: Wal-Mart
Star Wars trading discs

"Outside of the holiday season, we could be looking at the biggest week of 2015 for toys," said Wal-Mart's Anne Marie Kehoe, vice president of toys.

Making Wal-Mart's layaway service available earlier in the season will ensure that shoppers don't miss out on popular toys that they were hoping to put under the tree, in the event that they sell out, Kehoe said.

She added that although layaway is often associated with big-ticket purchases, Wal-Mart puts more toys on layaway than items from any other department—a trend she attributed to the breadth of its assortment.

Other changes to the retailer's layaway program include a minimum ticket price of $10 per item—down from $15 last year—and a 90-day period for customers to pay—up from 60 days in 2014. An additional 4,500 items will qualify for the service.

There will once again be no cost to set up a layaway account, and the down payment will be the greater of 10 percent or $10. Items can be picked up through Dec. 14.

In addition to the new "Star Wars" merchandise, Wal-Mart will host "Force Friday" events at 2,900 of its stores, where it will give away a limited-edition disc game by Topps.

The following day it will host family events at the same number of stores, where it will give away collectible posters and a children's activity sheet.

"We believe Wal-Mart's decision to pull its layaway program forward, as well as launching its first-ever Toy Week, are credit positives for the company," Moody's Vice President Charlie O'Shea said."We believe these actions signal that in keeping with what has become a tradition, the holiday season will be even earlier and longer this year."

Wal-Mart is not the only retailer hosting "Force Friday" events. Toys R Us stores will also hold midnight opening specials, at which it will give away limited-edition Lego toys. Its U.S. locations will also open "Star Wars" feature shops at the front of all its stores.

And next Thursday, the company's Times Square flagship will host events ranging from a Light Saber Academy to a costume contest.

The toys themselves will debut to much fanfare, during an 18-hour unveiling on YouTube Sept. 3.

According to The NPD Group, "Star Wars" and "Minions" products should help toy sales continue their momentum in the second half of 2015. In the first half of the year—which typically accounts for about a third of annual toy sales—the U.S. industry grew by 6.5 percent.

The research firm estimates the toy industry will grow 6.2 percent this year, from $18.08 billion in 2014.

"With this kind of sales performance, 2015 could be one of the best years the U.S. toy industry has seen in well over a decade," NPD's Juli Lennett said last month.