(Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) said it will bring forward its holiday layaway program by two weeks, as the world's largest retailer hopes to get a jump on year-end demand and fuel sales of soon-to-be-launched Star Wars toys.
The company will kick off the program that allows shoppers to pay for holiday gifts and other products in installments, on August 28, two weeks earlier than last year, Anne Marie Kehoe, vice president of toys, said in a briefing.
It will make 40,000 items available under the payment plan, roughly a fifth more than last year.
The move reflects Wal-Mart's desire to get a head start on a holiday season that is sure to be highly competitive. Toys are an especially big focus for retailers this year, ahead of the December release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" - the first in a new "Star Wars" trilogy being produced by Walt Disney Co.
Wal-Mart said it will have 500 new Star Wars products in stores on Sept 4, as part of a global roll-out of movie-related merchandise at various retailers. Wal-Mart will make thousands more items, including apparel, grocery and health products, available online.
Wal-Mart hopes the layaway program will ease purchases of Star Wars items, as well as other toys featured during a week-long toy promotion. Besides starting layaway earlier, it is reducing the minimum price for eligible items to $10 from $15 on a minimum basket of $50.
"In the five years we've been offering this holiday layaway program we've discovered that customers use it for a whole host of reasons, from being able to better budget their money and avoiding credit card fees," Kehoe said.
Layaway programs can have a sizeable impact on a retailer's sales. Retail consultant Burt Flickinger estimates layaway can account for as much as 10 to 15 percent of holiday revenues at Wal-Mart stores in poorer areas.
Wal-Mart said it would hold midnight Star Wars events at 2,900 stores on Sept 4 and family events at the same number of stores the following day. Kehoe said she expected strong demand for toys from collectors, besides children.
Helped by the Star Wars launch, the U.S. toy industry is poised to grow 6.2 percent in 2015 to $19.9 billion, according to research by the NPD Group tracking about 80 percent of U.S. retail sales.
(Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)