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Paying Off Layaway Accounts at Kmart

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When I first read the news about alleged Good Samaritans and Secret Santas paying off Kmart customers’ layaway accounts, the cynical side of my mind took over. What a great marketing maneuver for K-Mart. With mystery lay-off angels, they are saying, “Buy your gifts on layaway here, an action that could very well be profitable for us. There’s a chance someone will pay off your layaway account — but no promises.”

The press Kmart has received both in social media and in mainstream news has been significant. How can you not think that this movement, which seems to be tied almost exclusively to one particular retailer, is not an inside initiative? It also strikes me as odd that in many of the cases I’ve read about, the mystery helpers do not pay the accounts off in full. They leave a small amount left in the account for the customers to pay.

My cynicism is probably an overreaction, at least in most cases. I may be overreacting to the idea that Kmart needs whatever help in the press in can get. To illustrate what the experience of having your layaway account paid off by a stranger might look like, here is a personal account of what happened in one store:

… A young father wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots stood in line at a layaway counter alongside three small children. He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.

“She told him, ‘No, I’m paying for it,’” recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. “He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn’t, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears.”

Before she left the store Tuesday evening, the Indianapolis woman in her mid-40s had paid the layaway orders for as many as 50 people. On the way out, she handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register.

“She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died, and she said she wasn’t going to be able to spend it and wanted to make people happy with it…”

KmartWhy are these generous people targeting almost exclusively Kmart? Many other stores, like Walmart, Best Buy, Sears and Toys-R-Us, offer layaway programs. It’s this association with one particular retailer that has my public-relations radar pinging.

Kmart as a business entity has been financially troubled for some time. Any press is good press, and charity-infused press is great press. Anything that drives people to shop, including the idea that a mystery individual will cover the rest of your layaway payments, can help the company survive.

Perhaps Kmart is singly targeted because of its history. This particular retailer has offered and profited from layaways consistently for decades, and Kmart is perhaps the one store most associated with this type of purchasing plan.

These acts of charity are coming too late to inspire a shopper to take a chance by initiating a new layaway plan in time to receive the gifts in full by Christmas. There is a small chance that someone might come in and make the payment, but is it worth the risk?

Let’s say you want to buy gifts at Kmart with a total value of $250. With the 8-week layaway plan, you would need to pay $26 today and four bi-weekly payments of $58. Assuming you follow through, you won’t be able to take home the gifts before Hanukkah or Christmas, and you will have spent $8 more than today’s advertised prices. If, however, someone pays the remainder of your layaway account before the end of the week, you would have received $250 in gifts after paying only $26. I would further assume that this charity will not continue after the holidays, so there is even a lower probability of a Secret Santa paying off layaway accounts after Christmas. If you give up paying after the end of the week because you were hoping for charity rather than planning to pay for the items in full, you’ll have sunk only $26 into a purchase you’d never receive.

In other words, it’s an expensive lottery.

Tom Dziubek, podcast host and producer and extraordinaire, and I were discussing this story. He mentioned that reading about the charity of fellow humans inspired him to remember to complete his own charitable contributions. The spirit of giving is infectious. Some Kmart shoppers who have been the beneficiaries of good will have done the same for other layaway customers, and people who read positive stories are inspired to do other good deeds.

This holiday season, I’ll leave my cynicism behind. Perhaps these random acts of kindness are not part of a marketing scheme. Perhaps the are simply the result of charitable individuals not associated with Kmart. Perhaps the media isn’t complicit with promoting one retailer over another. Just this once.

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Photo: robertstinnett
Detroit Free Press

Updated December 20, 2011 and originally published December 19, 2011. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Roger Wohlner

Love your posts generally, but I think even the suggestion that these acts are anything but acts of kindness and charity by good samaritans is a bit too cynical. I say that as one of the most skeptical and cynical people that most of my friends and clients know. Perhaps it will come out that this is a some sort of marketing ploy, but I sure hope that isn’t the case. Until such time I will take these reports at face value.

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avatar Patty

Okay, I am not trying to toot my horn, but here it goes. One Sunday, I was in Target and there was a woman behind me. She placed several things on the conveyor belt just like I had. Somehow or another her chocolate bar was part of my stuff. As the cashier was processing things she asked me if the chocolate bar was mine. I said no, the other woman laughed and said something funny we laughed and I quietly asked the cashier how much the chocolate bar was. She told me the price and I actually had cash and paid for it. I turned around and said very nicely the chocolate bar is on me. I handed her the chocolate bar.

You would have thought I gave this woman a million dollars. She praised me, and I thought wow! She said that she would offer prayers on my behalf. It.WAS. JUST. A. CHOCOLATE.BAR.

I have nothing to do with Target, or any other box store. We just need to be nicer to one another as times are rough and tough right now. These consumers who are able to pay for someone else gifts want to help out, but you don’t necessarily want to give to a large firm that doles out the money as they see fit. They just want to help and while Kmart, Sears etc may not have good marketing, fantastic stores to shop in, they are in communities of people who have been hit especially hard in this depression.

A little niceness goes a long ways these days.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,373 (Platinum)

Thanks for sharing your story, Patty! It’s great that a small gesture can go a long way in making someone’s day.

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avatar krantcents

Talk about picking your charity! I am less cynical and believe people are good and just want to share.

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avatar wylerassociate ♦906 (Dime)

I am as cynical as others but this story warms your heart and helps believe in the goodness of people. The holidays are always a special time for me and I like giving money to help the less fortunate.

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avatar Linsey Knerl

Ahh.. the cynic. Where would we be without you? I jest, though, because it did strike me as a bit odd that we only read about the Kmart occurrences. I think it’s likely because KMart phoned it in to a media outlet and it picked up steam from there (my thoughts.. not a proven fact.) And as far as leaving a balance for the person to pay, most of the balances were less than a dollar, according to some reports. This ensures that the items stays in the layaway system and don’t get lost, as most people take their items directly home once the balance reaches zero.

Have a great holiday.. and keep playing devils’ advocate. It’s good food for thought ;)

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avatar Ceecee ♦796 (Dime)

Aw, how can you not love this story? It would be nice if we all had the extra cash to give to people. There is fun in that!

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avatar Henry Henry
avatar Tom Dziubek

While we can’t rule out the possibility that this is an unpublished gimmick by Kmart, stories like this bring charity to the forefront of people’s minds. In my own case, reading about this story…and how it’s even spread to the Kmart in my neighborhood…made me want to do something in turn. As Flexo mentioned above, it was at that point where I realized that I had forgotten to give *anything* to charity this year. As a result, I made my usual donations and I put a little extra in.

I think it’s common for us all to forget how we can make a difference, and especially during the bedlam that ensues during the holidays. While many of us can’t afford to pay off other people’s items on layaway there are many other fine institutions like “Toys For Tots” that accept monetary donations online. And if you want to have a more personal giving experience, you can always check with your local church or religious institution for ways to volunteer.

So, whether the Kmart stories are legitimate or a publicity scam, they still can provide a major boost for holiday charities.

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avatar WorkingMom

Reading about the mystery layaway “santas” did not make me go to Kmart to buy anything. If there were some angle that I could think would send people to Kmart to actually spend $, maybe my cynical side would also have been triggered…rather, I also remember my parents putting gifts for myself and my 5 siblings on layaway at Kmart. If reading your story made me want to go to Kmart, it would be to do something of the same sort myself…return a favor. Alas, no Kmart anywhere near me in Massachusetts. Also, your discussion of how unfavorable layaway is of no consequence to the person utilizing the service – it’s like telling a desperate person not to use a payday lender – they likely DO know it’s an egregiously poor choice but have no options (or maybe not I suppose)…Merry Christmas!

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avatar Tom Dziubek ♦338 (Nickel)

I think there’s two sides to the cynicism. Sure, it could be the company trying to drum up business (be it layaway or paid-in-full) but there’s also the possibility that opportunistic shoppers rush out to Kmart and start putting items like TVs and Xboxes on layaway…even though they can otherwise afford them…in the hopes that someone will buy them for them.

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avatar Linsey Knerl

I do appreciate that some of the “secret santas”, however, took the time to check out the goods before they pitched in. One good Samaritan only paid for items like socks and underwear, which is likely to be items that the poor would have to put on layaway. I don’t recall any stories of LED Tv’s being paid for. LOL

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avatar qixx ♦1,816 (Half-Dollar)

That was my first thought as well. It sounds like fun to go do this for someone.

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avatar jim

Way too cynical.

and …
“Kmart representatives say they did nothing to instigate the secret Santas or spread word of the generosity. ”
http://www.standard.net/stories/2011/12/17/anonymous-layaway-santa-paying-balances

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,373 (Platinum)

I thought that by concluding that it wasn’t an inside job, I was leaving my skepticism behind, but I suppose even stopping to think about the possibility of ulterior motives is enough to be labeled a cynic. Marketing surrounds us. There is little we see publicly from any corporation that isn’t a result of marketing efforts. It’s not so much of a stretch to think that a corporation welcomes and invites goodwill and positive impressions from customers through the perception of charity.

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avatar BubblePuppy

If it’s a publicity stunt by K Mart, I fell for it. Went to the local store, talked to the store manager, and worked with her to find and pay off two accounts that were delinquent. She was careful to find accounts that contained either toys or clothing, with a contract end date before Christmas. Wish I could have done more, because I know there are a lot of people out there struggling.

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avatar Steph

I think it is wonderful you did that. I think we should all be inspired to give without question and I think a lot of people have begun to do so because of this story. Locally we have seen stories where Walmart’s have had mystery givers pay off layaways as well.

I think the reason why Kmart was picked… or at least the reason I would pick Kmart, is because they have always had layaway and most of the other stores mentioned have done away with it. I used to be a struggling single mom who shopped that way for my Christmas stuff. It would have been such a blessing to have a surprise like that.

Bottom line… so what if it was a publicity stunt? It’s a heartwarming and inspiring story.

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avatar Kenny

it makes me feel good inside, therefore, it must be true.

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avatar tiffany

I couldn’t believe it! My mother received a call today from kmart telling her to come get her layaway because someone had paid it off! I’m very thankful because we have been strugling with money for christmas this year. Now my and my sisters children will have a great christmas this year because of an angel! there are good people out there and god bless them all.

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avatar Henry Henry

Heard some friends talking about this story. It inspired me to do the same. I suggested we all put in, a few days later met at a location walked in and paid for some ones Christmas.
God is love.
Merry Christmas,
Henry.

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avatar Doc S

You are right that Kmart has had a layaway program for many years. They had a short gap when they stopped the program but reinstated it a couple of years ago. Theirs is unique in that they do not have a minimum purchase requirement and therefore meet the needs of people with limited resources. I am good friends with a Kmart store mgr, and have gotten a real eye opener about the needs of our less fortunate neighbors. I had the chance to be a layaway angel today. It felt great.

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avatar Cejay ♦1,521 (Half-Dollar)

My local K-Mart is much easier to get in and out of than the Wal-Mart. Plus the K-Mart would not put your stuff on the shelve if you were a day or so deliquent as the Wal-Mart would. I guess I would not pick Wal Mart since I do not like the store at all while the K-Mart store is much nicer. But I am a cynic and so I would have to wonder if it really happened. Or maybe it happened once or twice and then urban legends took over.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

We don’t have Kmart here anymore, but I love this story, and even though I’m reading it after Christmas, it’s inspired me to do something like this next year. I think the joy I would get from doing this would be the best kind of gift I could ever give myself.

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avatar Eric

i have never shopped at a kmart, personaly,. in my lifetime(being 30). till recently, this 2012 black friday, Kmart had a huge hdtv for 288.00 i didnt waste my time trying to get that deal. , but a 50″ hdtv for $288? i dont care what brand it is. none the less, i ended up on kmARTS site, and found a $900 panasonic 50″ plasma for $480. thats insane, so much so, other than sears(same company), who currently has it on sale for $699.99…. other than that, the tv is over $800 everywhere else, even ebay and amazon. not to mention i put it on Layaway to lock in the sale price till i could get a paycheck.
i’ll be freaquenting kmart more often after this.

wal

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