September brought an unexpected and pleasant surprise to Sears, Roebuck charge-card customers. The giant retailer stuffed its account envelopes with the announcement that minimum monthly payments were being lowered by 20 percent or more.
Merchandising analysts said this appeared to be a timely and noteworthy decision, especially since many smaller competitors have been increasing the amounts of consumer monthly payments to facilitate better cash flows. The new Sears schedule - a reversion to the credit terms of 1972-78 - allows a payoff over 36 months, compared with the previous 30-month period. Customers owing $1, 000 on a Sears charge account will now pay only $36 a month rather than the $44 payment formerly required.
So far, competitors have not made any moves to match or exceed the newly lengthened Sears customer contracts. Under its new plan, Sears requires monthly payments of about 3.5 percent of an individual's balance - whereas other major retailers require from 10 to 20 percent of the account to be paid each month. All accounts of this nature are assessed a finance charge, although accounts may be paid in full at any time, usually without penalty.
The change, said Kathy Gucfa, Sears public affairs representative, ''was a result of management's confidence in the future of the economy. There has been a noticeable desire on the part of consumers to opt recently for more and more durable goods. And one way for us to respond to this demand, we felt, was to ease credit terms, which are a big factor in appliance, furniture, and home-improvement sales.''
Sears has long recognized that credit is an effective merchandising tool. As a pioneer in installment selling - even in the company's preretail days - Sears consumer-credit arrangements have always figured prominently in its promotional strategy. One of its first efforts (now widely copied) was the use of deferred payments for Christmas buying: ''. . . Nothing down and no payments until February,'' ads said. Even before computerized letter writing, Sears credit customers were among the first to receive personal incentive letters when their accounts were close to being paid up. And Sears was one of the first to accept purchase of both soft goods and apparel on revolving charge accounts - at a time when installment sales were generally available only for articles that could be repossessed.