A year ago Susan Ehrlich was visiting one of Sears' Kmart stores in Chicago and found herself wandering through the appliance department. As she routinely does, Ehrlich asked a sales associate how things were going and was surprised to hear that many customers were inquiring about layaway options.

Ehrlich shared the information with her colleagues and, six months later, the sales associate's suggestion became a reality as Kmart started offering layaway on its appliances.

It was just another example of Ehrlich putting a new twist on an old consumer-finance concept. This past holiday season the company launched a Christmas Club program that let customers earn interest on money they save for the holidays to use at Sears and its sister stores. The retailer also became the firstto offer layaway online, and just a few months ago it opened Kmart Financial Centers-where customers can cash checks, pay bills and conduct other transactions-in 10 Chicago-area stores.

Ehrlich, who joined Sears in 2006, says many of these decisions were made after informal conversations with customers and sales associates. While the core business for her group is still the credit-card operations, she understands that not everyone can qualify for a card, and therefore need other options.

"We are able to offer alternatives that leave more money in the wallets of households, making them better off," she says.

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