Retailers push Christmas promotions in July
Here's how to weigh the pros and cons of holiday savings clubs.
There are more than 160 shopping days until Christmas, but retailers are already angling for a chunk of the nation's holiday spending budget.
Several big chain stores are rolling out holiday savings programs this summer. The plans require customers to commit money to a store throughout the year in exchange for bonus cash redeemable closer to the winter holidays.
Sears -- which first offered a Christmas savings club last year -- is reprising its promotion this year, offering shoppers a bonus of 3% on funds saved in store accounts between now and Nov. 15. The store charges a $5 fee for each account.
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Toys R Us is offering a Christmas Savers Club for the first time this year, with free accounts and a bonus of 3% on funds saved between now and Oct. 16. Participants in either club receive their account value as a store gift card when they cash out.
Holiday savings clubs can be a winning proposition for retailers because they allow stores to lock in sales early.
The early starting dates of such promotions are a sign that retailers are pessimistic about holiday spending, says Gerrick Johnson, a senior research analyst for BMO Capital Markets. "They're gearing up for another less-than-stellar holiday season," he says.
A holiday savings account is not always advantageous for a shopper. By locking in funds months before stores have stocked their inventories and set their prices, shoppers are "relinquishing control" over their spending, says Gail Cunningham, a spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. She adds that such programs can be helpful for some consumers because they encourage them to lay out funds for gifts in advance.
Here's what to consider before signing up:
Debt load. Holiday clubs can most clearly benefit shoppers who don't carry a lot of debt because they won't compound a burden of other monthly payments.
Some consumers with credit card debt may be better off saving extra cash for planned holiday purchases than using it to pay off their balances, says Catherine Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, which oversees nonprofit credit-counseling agencies. "It can help control holiday spending down the line," and consumers "avoid the temptation of tacking on expenses to an existing balance," she says.
The difference in credit card interest paid is likely to be minimal, too. For example, say someone with a $2,000 credit card balance (18% annual percentage rate, minimum payment $50) wants to spend $500 on gifts. Stashing $125 a month for four months in a Toys R Us account would net a $15 bonus, and cost the cardholder just $13.44 extra in interest, compared with using that cash to pay down a balance before charging $500 in gifts.
Shopping list. Retailers are at their most competitive during the holiday shopping season, and shoppers who lock in cash at one store will have less flexibility to take advantage later on.
"What if Wal-Mart has a better price?" says Dan de Grandpre, founder of sale-tracking site DealNews.com. Shoppers should consider what they plan to buy at a retailer and budget accordingly. Holiday clubs can be a better fit for items exclusive to that retailer, or big-ticket items where the bonus is likely to offset any potential price difference.
On the other hand, club card balances don't expire and may offer some flexibility for where they can be used. Toys R Us cards can also be used at Babies R Us, and those from Sears are also good at Kmart, Lands’ End, The Great Indoors and MyGofer.com.
Bank yields. Retailers' 3% bonus can be nearly triple what you'd earn in interest with a basic savings or money market account, Cunningham says. However, banks and credit unions offer more flexibility in where to spend, and the freedom to access cash should a more pressing purchase (say, a flat tire or broken refrigerator) pop up before the holidays.
Shop around to see if there's another Christmas club or bank bonus account that offers a comparable deal. SmartyPig.com, for example, partners with FDIC-insured West Bank to offer a 2.15% annual percentage yield and bonuses for redeeming all or part of the balance in retailer gift cards -- including 10% at Banana Republic, 4% at Amazon.com and 4% at Sears. (Users can also opt to cash out the free account.)
Fine print. Read the terms and conditions for potential catches such as fees and reward caps. Toys R Us offers up to $75 in bonuses, while Sears limits account holders to $100. Shoppers should be mindful that there are no cash refunds for money put on their cards, Williams says.
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