It's only August, but retailers such as Wal-Mart and Toys R Us are already getting a jump on what is expected to be a difficult holiday season.
On Wednesday, discount giant Wal-Mart said it would bring back its layaway program this year after last year's program pulled in 10% more in sales than it did when it debuted in 2011.
Layaway, which allows customers to put products on hold while paying for them in installments, will be free from opening fees this year. The chain previously charged a $5 fee to open a layaway account.
As in previous years, Wal-Mart will require a down payment of $10, or 10% of an item's price. The company reinstituted a $10 cancellation fee, which it had removed last year.
This time around, there are "no gimmicks," Duncan Mac Naughton, Wal-Mart's chief merchandising and marketing officer, said in a conference call with reporters.
"Our customers are feeling the pinch," he said, adding that the coming months "will be a very dynamic and competitive season."
The chain is offering layaway from Sept. 13 through Dec. 13, though fans of the company on Facebook will get a two-day head start. In addition to the jewelry, toys and electronics included in the program last year, customers this year will be able to lay away infant toys and car stereos.
Mac Naughton said he expected major sellers among the 35,500 available items to be computer tablets such as the Apple iPad and the Samsung Galaxy, smartphones, Playstation and Xbox One consoles, big-screen smart TVs, toys such as the Furby Boom and the Barbie Dream House and children's learning toys.
Wal-Mart also plans to price-match its products to other competitors, a tactic also being used by Toys R Us.
The playthings purveyor said this week that it was expanding its price-match guarantee to include prices of online competitors such as Walmart.com, Target.com, Amazon.com and more.
The policy, which applies to in-store purchases at Toys R Us and Babies R Us, ensures that customers will pay the same as or less than they would at BestBuy.com, Sears.com, Kmart.com, buybuyBaby.com, Meijer.com, FredMeyer.com, diapers.com and BabyDepot.com.
The exception? All bets are off from Nov. 17 through Nov. 25, when retailers often offer extreme discounts pegged to Black Friday and Cyber Monday shoppers.
Analysts expect this holiday season to be a muted one for retailers amid lackadaisical consumption from Americans.
On Wednesday, Target Corp. said its profit in the second quarter dropped 13%, to $611 million, or 95 cents a share, from $704 million, or $1.06 a share in the second period a year earlier.
Revenue for the period ended Aug. 30 was up 2% to $17.12 billion.
Same-store sales, a key measure that strips out volatility by only considering sales at stores open at least a year, rose 1.2% in the U.S.
Several major retailers, including Target and Wal-Mart, have trimmed their financial outlook for the year.