Secret ‘Santas’ pay strangers’ layaway balances at 2 area Kmarts
BY BILL BIRD email@example.com December 17, 2011 7:08PM
In this Dec. 12, 2011 photo, Jeremy Lucas and Latasha Lucas pay off the rest of their layawa at the Kmart in Grand Rapids, Mich. The layaway-paying Secret Santa Craze that began in Grand Rapids has quickly spread across the country. (AP Photo/The Grand Rapids Press, Katie Greene)
Updated: January 19, 2012 11:16AM
Attention, Kmart shoppers: check your layaway accounts. Santa Claus may have come to town a little early this year.
At Kmart stores across the country, St. Nick has more “elves” than he probably realizes. Anonymous donors are paying off the layaway accounts of others, buying the Christmas gifts some families cannot afford in these hardscrabble times, especially when it comes to toys and children’s clothing.
The phenomenon apparently originated earlier this month in Michigan, the home state of the Kmart Corp. Since then, scores of customers have benefited from the kindness of strangers in Indiana, Iowa, Montana and Nebraska.
It’s also happening in the Naperville-Aurora area. Assistant managers of the Kmart stores at 1199 E. Ogden Ave. on Naperville’s northeast side and 1900 Douglas Road in Montgomery said Saturday they, too, have experienced it.
“I think it’s a really neat thing,” said the assistant manager of the Montgomery store, who declined to be identified. “It’s a blessing this time of year, and it’s really nice to hear.”
“We’ve got some layaway angels out there.”
The giving in Montgomery “just started today,” the assistant manager said. “We’ve had at least six throughout the day,” with some payments in the $100 range, she said.
The Naperville Kmart assistant manager, who also declined to give his name, said things took root there about a week ago.
“We’ve had approximately a dozen yesterday and today,” the assistant manager said. Benefactors have tended to remain anonymous by choice, “and they’ll kind of pick a layaway” account and pay off the balance, which has generally been in the $70 to $100 range, he said.
One such transaction bought a customer “a significant amount of toys,” the assistant manager said. He also had a personal experience with one woman “who didn’t want to be identified, and said she just wanted to do something good.”
Layaway account payoffs have totaled “at least” $1,000 at the Naperville store and are in the hundreds of dollars at the Montgomery location, the assistant managers said.
This particular Yuletide virus also appears to be highly contagious. “It’s inspired some of our (employees) to go in and pay off a layaway, too,” the Naperville assistant manager said.
It is much the same at the Montgomery store. The assistant manager there said one woman who benefited from the anonymous settlement of her layaway account took the money she had earmarked for it and paid off someone else’s debt.
“It is honestly being driven by people wanting to do a good deed at this time of the year,” said Salima Yala, Kmart’s division vice president for layaway.
Yala and other Kmart officials said they did nothing to instigate the giving, but it is happening as the company struggles to compete with chains such as Walmart and Target.
Kmart may be the focus of layaway generosity, Yala said, because it is one of the few large discount stores that has offered layaway year-round for about four decades. Under the program, customers can make purchases but let the store hold onto their merchandise as they pay it off slowly over several weeks.
The good Samaritans seem to be visiting mainly Kmart stores, though a Walmart spokesman said a few of his stores in Joplin, Mo., and Chicago have also seen some layaway accounts paid in full.
— The Associated Press
contributed to this report.