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Secret Santa trend snowballs

Acts of kindness brighten the holidays for families with children as anonymous donors pay off layaway contracts across the country.

By Giselle Smith Dec 13, 2011 6:19PM

When a young woman walked up to the layaway counter at a Grand Rapids, Mich., Kmart store on Dec. 5 and asked to anonymously pay off three customers' layaway bills, she probably had no idea she would be starting a trend.

The story -- originally reported on West Michigan's WOOD TV8 and picked up by newspapers and blogs around the country -- related how a woman, who appeared to be in her 30s, looked through the 800 or so layaway contracts at the Plainfield Avenue Kmart and chose three, on which she paid all but $10 on each. The total cost was about $500, WOOD TV8 reported.

The woman requested that the layaway tickets include toys for children, and the only clue she left to her identity was a note scribbled on each ticket that said "Happy Holidays from a friend."

Since then, such secret Santa acts of kindness appear to be snowballing.

The same West Michigan Kmart received a $2,000 gift to pay off 14 more layaway contracts on Dec. 6, and has had donations of $150 to $200 every day since then, The Detroit News reported.

Secret Santa sightings have been reported in other Michigan cities, and as far away as Nebraska and California.

A Kmart store in Anaheim, Calif., called Grand Rapids to ask for advice on layaway payoffs, Pete Dunn, store manager at the Plainfield Avenue Kmart told The Detroit News. "Everyone's talking about it," said Dunn, who has worked at Kmart for 16 years. "I've never seen anything like this with total strangers picking up someone's layaway."


Santa visits

Secret Santa -- or his elves -- has been paying visits to stores all over the country:

  • At the Kmart in Hastings, Mich., a donor brought in $5,000 and paid off 50 layaway accounts, The Grand Rapids Press reported.
  • In Jackson, Mich., two men paid off layaway accounts, worth more than $500, for about 15 people, WLNS-TV reported.
  • In Omaha, Neb., anonymous donors have paid off an unspecified number of Kmart layaway accounts, according to The Republic.
  • In Burlington, N.C., an anonymous man contributed $100 to a woman's layaway account -- where she had set aside $200 worth of toys to donate to a needy family, WFMY News reported.
  • In Anaheim, Calif., someone who had seen the original story walked into a Kmart store and wanted to pay off $5,000 in layaway tabs, according to Gant Daily.

Kmart won't cash in on trend

Though not all of the layaway Santas are hitting Kmart stores, the chain has received some good -- and free -- press from the story. The company won't attempt to profit from it, however, according to a spokesperson. Post continues below.


"The beauty of this is that it's organic and coming from the customers and not from us," Salima Yala, the retailer's division vice president for layaway, told The Grand Rapids Press. "It's being driven by outside the company. It's just people to people."

Unlike using a credit card, which lets you take your purchases home and pay for them over time, an item bought on layaway stays at the store -- in storage -- until the bill is paid in full. Most stores charge a service fee, and the required down payment is usually not refundable if you are unable to pay off the balance within the contracted time.

Although popular with people who don't have credit cards, layaway service was discontinued by many stores in the mid-2000s, as more customers gained access to credit, Time reported. With the recent recession, it's made a comeback.

Restoring faith in human kindness

One of the recipients of the original secret layaway Santa was Mary Chapin, who had put $200 of toys for her 12-year-old son on layaway. She said the woman's generosity "restored her faith in people," according to WOOD TV8.

That woman, whoever she is (Mrs. Claus, perhaps?), should be very proud.


More on MSN Money:

Dec 14, 2011 5:05AM
'Tis The Season .... Would be wonderful if  Tis the season to share kindness with others would last all year round. May you and yours be Blessed this holiday season and throughout 2012.
Dec 14, 2011 12:55PM
It is refreshing to see a story about people doing something nice for others with no strings attached.
Dec 14, 2011 1:13PM
Don't forget Burlington Coat has layway too!
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