For Americans laboring in long department stores lines, hot off the hunt for holiday deals, the cashier question “would you like to save 10% on your purchase today?” can be as common as a seasonal cold. And for well-known retailers seeking to make a profit this Christmas shopping season—from Target to World Market—pitching a retail credit card with the promise of an initial discount is an innovative way to make them fast money and you financially miserable.
With department stores facing tough financial times, they’re depending on customers just like you to buy more and more during the traditionally consumer-driven holiday season. Normally, these retailers could simply sit back and enjoy your seasonal spending. But, with Americans facing the same economic struggles as stores during this shopping season, and threats of falling spending and paltry sales during a continuing recession, retailers are now going out of their way to provide attractive deals at point of sale that will likely carry over as profits (for them) long after this holiday season has ended.
And here’s how.
Consumers, struggling with holiday purchasing expectations amid an economic downturn are essentially drawn in to what they perceive as a “no strings attached” way to instantly save 10 percent: an equally instant store credit card. However, retailers also make money on even this initial exchange, earning the retail margin—from cents to dollars—in each of these beginning buys. In addition, stores can make money on the “back end” if they themselves also finance your transaction.
But the retail rip-off doesn’t end there. Even for consumers with excellent credit scores, store credit cards carry exorbitant fees, interest rates and finance charges, most over 20%. Not only do these charges begin the moment you make your initial purchase using the store card, but if you don’t happen to pay the entire balance after the first bill, much less if you make future transactions using their plastic, you may continue to carry the debt—and the charges—signifying more cash for retailers and more debts for you to carry. Because it’s now in the retailers best interest to have you keep a balance and not pay off your debt, they may also snag your e-mail with the initial card offer, creating a cycle of sending you more deals for any card purchase—all deals, coincidentally, that are less in value than any of the ever-expensive card fees and charges you’ll be paying.
To add insult to injury, a retail card agreement may also contain a security interest, attached to any items that you purchase from their store. As a result, if you face unexpected expenses or losses in your budget, and ultimately don’t pay your retail card debts in a timely manner, the purchased items can legally be repossessed. Meaning you lose-lose situation, no matter how you pay their way.
As a result, it's important to see this retail trick as just that, fooling you into falling for the quick savings: an emotional and euphoric point of sale offer that is short on details and financing specifics, giving you little time to read the fine print, and that the store knows will ultimately mean more debt for you and a better bottom line for them.
As an alternative, ask yourself: “would I like to save my financial future in spite of this purchase today?” To do so, plan ahead, budgeting your holiday buys before you even enter into the temptations of the retail environment. Then, instead of using personal credit cards or “pie-in-the-sky” retail plastic, carry cash, checks or debit cards this holiday season. As a result of using the money you actually have, you may make more thoughtful purchases and spend less this season, and, in the end, spend less time digging yourself out of post-holiday season debt.