Unemployment: Deals for the Discharged

Companies are countering consumer fear of layoffs with a range of rebates, freebies, and guarantees if customers lose their jobs

There's nothing like the fear of losing your job to get you to start hoarding cash and putting off purchases, even of necessities. Automakers, airlines, and clothing retailers, among others, are battling back with a slew of guarantees, rebates, and freebies geared specifically to those who might get laid off or already have been.

"So much of this recession is being driven by fear of losing one's job that we thought we could go after that fear directly," says John Krafcik, chief executive of Hyundai Motor America, which in December launched a program that allows car buyers to return their vehicles if they lose their jobs.

Clothier Jos. A. Bank (JOSB) has a deal on suits for the unemployed. Bank of America (BAC) is waiving certain fees for those who've lost their jobs. And FedEx Office (FDX) let job-seekers print résumés for free during a one-day extravaganza.

Accelerating Trend

Michael Silverstein, a senior partner at the Boston Consulting Group in Chicago, reckons that at least 100 major companies have similar programs in the market or ready to launch and that many more will do so over the next few months. Scores of mom-and-pop businesses, down to the local hairdresser, are also cooking up deals to help keep their cash-strapped customers.

"We are calling this altruism marketing," says Silverstein. "These companies realize the risk is not that high and the benefit is very high."

For companies desperate to get consumer spending to return, those benefits include getting skittish consumers into the stores, allaying fears over buyer regret, keeping customer loyalty during the downturn, and generally good PR.

"It's a different kind of insurance," says University of Chicago marketing professor Jean-Pierre Dubé. "Consumers are worried about buying because maybe they'll lose their jobs, so stores are saying we'll help you alleviate that uncertainty for free."

Of course, buyer beware: While many of these offers are straightforward appeals for your business (buy a car, please!), others may require you to pay up front for security you likely don't need and could potentially lock you into a more expensive product. Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, based in Pittsburgh, for example, launched a program last month that lets sellers pay $329 at closing for an insurance plan that would pay the buyer's mortgage up to $1,500 a month for six months in the event of a job loss. The catch: You'd have to get your mortgage through Howard Hanna.

Click through our slide show of deals companies are offering to those who have lost a job.

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