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Anonymous ‘Layaway Angels’ Return to Pay Off Strangers’ Balances

Lisa Scherzer

Santa’s helpers are back.

A few anonymous donors — so-called layaway angels — are paying off strangers' in-store layaway balances, essentially buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn't afford.

The number of good Samaritans has apparently been growing, according to a Friday story in USA Today. A woman in Stratford, Wis., got a call from a Walmart store last week telling her that the remaining $100 on her layaway — including toys and DVDs for her five children — had been paid. "I cried," the article stated.

As of this morning, 73 Kmart stores have reported layaway angels spent more than $100,000 to pay off balances, mostly on children’s gifts like toys and clothing, said Shannelle Armstrong-Fowler, director of public relations for Sears. One recent example of altruism: A car dealer owner in Anaheim, Calif., paid down the entire amount of layaway balances in two Kmart stores, which came to $18,000 and 131 accounts.

“We’ve heard stories of people’s layaway balances paid off and now they’re able to pay off another major bill or get their car repaired,” said LaToya Evans, a spokeswoman for Walmart. The donated amounts have ranged from $40 to more than $20,000, Evans said. Someone in Tulsa, Okla., donated $10,000 to pay off 52 layaway accounts, while another in Bellefontaine, Ohio, gave a $27,000 donation on Dec. 8 that paid off 200 accounts.

A Toys R Us spokeswoman said the retailer has seen more than 600 layaway orders paid off by anonymous benefactors in stores since it started the program in October.

And these generous givers are specific about what they’re paying for. Evans has heard of layaway angels going into Walmart stores and making a request to pay off those layaway accounts on the verge of cancellation, just recently cancelled, or those with kids’ toys.

Toys R Us, for one, has offered a matching program of sorts for this kind of generosity. In October, the retailer announced that for each layaway balance paid off as an act of kindness, the company will donate $200 worth of toys — the approximate average value of a layaway order created at the store — to the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, up to $1 million worth of toys.

The surprising acts of benevolence began as a real nationwide phenomenon in 2011. Last December employees at an Indianapolis Super Kmart store said a middle-aged woman walked into the store’s layaway department and paid off as many as 50 customers’ layaway balances (in the memory of her late husband). And before leaving the woman handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register.

Kmart developed an ad campaign around these so-called layaway angels. The commercial acknowledges the acts of kindness and thanks “all of our Layaway Angels for making someone's Christmas very special.”

The trend has been popping up all over the country again this holiday. In Longview, Wash., someone secretly paid off 50 customers’ layaway accounts at a Bob’s Sporting Goods store, according to a report by an Oregon news station. Wayne Elkins, one of the lucky shoppers whose account was paid said he cried for about 30 minutes when he was told about the gift.

According to another local news report, strangers paid off layaway bills nearly 20 times in Greensboro, N.C. A Michigan layaway angel recently donated $10,000 for customers at a local Walmart store, one of the largest anonymous donations area retailers have reported, according to a local report. Similar gifts were given at a Walmart in Marshfield, Wis., surprising one mother, Kami Young, who was told that the remaining $80 on her layaway bill was paid anonymously. “I want to say thank you to whoever paid our bill,” she said.

One reason for the uptick in layaway payoffs is that a few big-box retailers, including Walmart, reinstated the program last year, allowing low-income shoppers in particular to manage their gift-buying budgets.

“We got inundated last year — people came into the stores all over country” and paid off about $1 million in layaway accounts, Armstrong-Fowler said. Anonymous donors actually pay off others’ layaway accounts throughout the year, but there’s an uptick around the holidays, she said.