Holiday Promotions Months Before the Holiday? Sign Us Up!

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Apparently, there is no such thing as launching a winter holiday shopping deal too early. Thus far, early season promotions—layaway especially—have done brisk business for retailers like Walmart and Toys R Us.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, some of the earliest early season holiday promotions offered by major retailers have been huge successes.

Due to high demand, Toys R Us has reportedly stopping taking orders for the Tabeo tablet and Wii U video game console, which were both on the retailer’s Hot Toy Reservations list. With this program, consumers can reserve toys with 20% down by October 31. They’ll then be guaranteed the item(s) won’t be sold out, so long as full payment and pickup is completed by December 16.

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Walmart, which is offering an extra month of layaway to customers this holiday season, told investors that stores have already registered $400 million with the program:

That is more than half the amount that shoppers put on hold in layaway at Walmart during all of last year’s holiday season. Top items so far include 50-inch televisions, iPads and trampolines.

Something tells me not all of those layaway items are being paid off with $20 here and $50 there just to make a child happy on Christmas morning.

The Associated Press reports that Walmart, Kmart, and Toys R Us are posting impressive early layaway sales for kids’ tablets, battery-powered cars, Barbie dolls, Monster High figures, and Furbys:

BMO Capital Markets analyst Gerrick L. Johnson said programs such as layaway — along with price matching offers and expanded shipping offers — might have a positive effect on toy sales, because they make expensive items more accessible, make all items easier to buy, and entice earlier sales.

“The earlier consumers start shopping, the more they tend to buy in the end,” he wrote in a note to investors.

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That, in a nutshell, explains why retailers are constantly expanding the holiday shopping season. Given the strong early sales, it appears to have made sense for stores to drop their usual layaway fees this year, with the overall payoff (more total sales for the season) far outweighing any fees that might have been collected.

Layaway appears to be working quite well for retailers. But how about shoppers? Clearly, they are embracing layaway this fall. The results of a survey published earlier this month indicated that a surprisingly high 34% of U.S. consumers were “at least somewhat likely to purchase items on layaway this holiday season.”

The combination of better terms (i.e., fewer fees) and continued economic pressure on households have caused renewed interest in layaway. That doesn’t mean, however, that layaway is actually a good deal for shoppers.

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Retailers are willing to deal with the administrative costs of layaway because they know that the analyst’s quote above to be true: When shoppers buy earlier in the season, or at least commit themselves to buying earlier via layaway, they generally wind up spending more through the entirety of what has become a broadly expanded holiday season. The net result is that the shopper spends more in the long run—which isn’t at all in the interests of households trying to contain costs.

Personal finance columnist Gregory Karp offered one of the most withering attacks in recent memory on layaway, no matter if there are fewer fees than in the past. Mostly, Karp writes that layaway programs are completely unnecessary. The smarter, more responsible approach is simply saving up enough to pay for the items in cash. As for those who say they find it impossible to save on their own:

If you have the discipline to set up a layaway plan, make a down payment, pay fees and repeatedly return to a store to make layaway payments, it seems you would have the discipline to take that same money and stuff it in a savings envelope.

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Regardless of the many reasonable arguments against layaway, shoppers are signing up earlier and in larger numbers than they have in the past. These trends can only mean one thing: Look forward to layaway programs and holiday promotions that start even earlier next year.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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