KAI RYSSDAL: American consumers being the fickle bunch that we are, it's not much more than folly to try to predict what the holiday shopping season's going to be like this year.
'Course, that doesn't mean the experts aren't trying. The latest thinking is sales will be up slightly over last year. Nothing like what was expected when a recovery seemed to be on the way, though. So retailers are trying everything they can to make it easier for consumers to spend.
Wal-Mart's bringing back holiday layaway today as companies mix old tricks with new. Marketplace's Jennifer Collins reports.
JENNIFER COLLINS: Wal-Mart says its layaway program is back by popular demand.
Wal-Mart Commercial: I wish you guys had layaway. 'Cause then I could pay a little at a time and my kids would be like: awesome.
It could be awesome for Wal-Mart too. Marianne Bickle directs the Center for Retailing at the University of South Carolina. She says layaway gets customers to the cash register much more quickly.
MARIANNE BICKLE: You pull the trigger faster because you say I have twelve weeks to pay on it.
Or in Wal-Mart's case: two months. Purchases have to be paid off by mid-December and there are fees. Plus layaway's only available on certain items. Kmart, Sears, Best Buy and Toys "R" Us offer similar programs. Bickle says consumers using layaway are more likely to buy more.
BICKLE: It says you can look at big ticket items without having sticker shock.
Retailers are worried about a different kind of sticker shock.
Megan Donadio is a retail strategist with Kurt Salmon. She says retailers ordered their holiday merchandise months ago when the economy looked stronger. Now they're afraid they'll be stuck with too much merchandise they'll have to mark down. So, they're trying to lock in purchases as quickly as they can.
MEGAN DONADIO: It's really about anything a retailer can do to enhance the convenience levels for the consumer.
In some higher-end stores, Donadio says retailers are bring the cash registers to customers. That cuts down on waiting and thinking time. Some Nordstrom sales associates carry iPod Touches to ring up sales anywhere in the store. The European chain One Piece is using iPads. The chain sells...
SEBASTIAN MOSER: It's like a one-piece sweatsuit.
Louise Ohlsson manages the Los Angeles store. Her iPad lets her close the deal while shoppers are still in the dressing room.
MOSER: I was wondering what that thing was for the iPad?
LOUISE OHLSSON: It's our register.
MOSER: This is cool. This is so cool.
Ohlsson says that cool factor keeps the sales relationship going.
OHLSSON: You know when you have a new product and they still find it very interesting just while you're ringing them up. You're still entertaining them. And I find it very helpful.
Social psychologist Phil Mazzocco of Ohio State University Mansfield says these conveniences help brick and mortar stores compete with online retailers.
PHIL MAZZOCCO: Part of the appeal of actually being in a store is you can pick up your product and walk right out of the store with it.
By the end of this week, JC Penney stores will include "Wrapt shops" -- where customers can quickly pick up gifts and go. Mazzocco says, if a retailer...
MAZZOCCO: Can grab you before that part of your brain kicks in, I'm going to increase the chance that you're just going to impulsively purchase that product.
And for retailers, a little impulse could go a long way this holiday season.
I'm Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.