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…”
Why 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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Updated December 20, 2011 and originally published December 19, 2011.