The holiday phenomenon of anonymous donors paying off strangers’ layaway balances is spreading nationwide.
“When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke until I saw it on the news,” said Karen Steinert, an assistant manager for the Kmart store in Oaklawn, IL. “We had a lady come in today who paid off two people’s layaways.”
The charitable movement appears to have started in Grand Rapids, MI, according to news reports, where a woman wishing to remain anonymous paid off the layaway balances of three accounts at the Grand Rapids Kmart.
Steinert said she suspects many of the store's layaway customers are struggling to survive in the down economy.
The secret angels have mostly been appearing at Kmart stores across the country, but the news media have reported angels paying off layaway accounts at Wal-Mart stores as well. And in Orland Park, IL, a gentleman paid off the layaway bills for eight people at the Toys R Us.
One Kmart manager cited the store’s layaway policy as one reason the chain may have been chosen by so-called “layaway angels.” Other stores often restrict layaway to electronics and other specific items.
An offshoot of the Great Depression, layaway allowed customers to purchase merchandise over time in small amounts until the full balance was paid. Some stores discontinued the practice because of the ubiquity of credit cards, but layaway has become popular again in the economic downturn.
The mystery angels have visited so many Kmart stores that the corporate chain has asked its local stores to keep lists of account balances and items on layaway.
Layaway contracts at Kmart are for eight weeks. For purchases over $300 a 12-week option is available. Many customers started putting merchandise for Christmas on layaway weeks ago.
Stores reportedly are not divulging the identities of angels or recipients.