Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011 | 2 a.m.
They had read about the anonymous gifting in the news and had even seen a few examples at their own store.
Nevertheless, when a woman came into a Kmart in northwest Las Vegas on Saturday and donated $14,000 to pay off the delinquent layaway accounts of 60 strangers, store manager Frank Aiello got goose bumps and the employee helping the “layaway angel” broke down in tears.
“I’ve worked for Kmart for 42 years — seven at this store — and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Aiello said about the phenomenon of customers offering to pay off other people’s layaway accounts, which made national news last week and has snowballed.
In this case the anonymous donor paid off delinquent accounts — those in which the customer had missed a payment and the merchandise was scheduled to be returned to the store shelves.
“It’s been very moving,” said Aiello, who was inspired to pay off some accounts himself. “People have been coming in all day and all night. I think those who are better off, who feel blessed, realize there are others struggling and want to help.”
At Aiello’s store, at least 26 layaway donors have come through with donations. The smallest: $40.
It’s happening elsewhere in the Las Vegas Valley. At a Kmart in Henderson, a woman was in line to make a payment for her layaway account when the customer behind her spontaneously offered to not only pay for the layaway items but the toys in her cart, as well.
“The woman tried to refuse, but in the end she accepted and started crying,” Kmart associate Jene Jones said. “The woman said normally her family would donate, but her husband had lost his job. Everyone was crying: the cashier, the two women, everyone.”
A Kmart corporate spokeswoman said the $14,000 gift was the largest reported in the Las Vegas area, and the biggest individual donation it had recorded was more than $20,000 at a store in Baltimore. News of the anonymous Santas surfaced at a Kmart in Michigan, triggering media coverage that resulted in the spread of giving.
This type of charitable holiday giving has occurred in previous years, but not to the degree that is occurring now, the company says. At least 1,000 “layaway angels” have visited Kmarts from coast to coast this year, the company spokeswoman said.
She said the company had no part in either promoting the phenomenon or dubbing the donors “layaway angels,” but the company has started tracking the donations and hopes to compile totals after the holidays.
Debbie Cass, a layaway manager at a Kmart in Summerlin, said she made a list of layaway accounts that contain mostly children’s items because that is what most of the donors are requesting. At that store about 50 people had donated about $5,000, she said.
“One of the first was an elderly gentleman, just shy of using a walker, who handed an envelope to an employee with $400 in cash in it and a little note that said, ‘Please make some childrens’ Christmases better.’ It was addressed to layaway and contained a clipping of a news article on the donations,” Cass said.
Sun City Summerlin resident Ellen Crawford and her daughter Rachel Morgan saw the national news story on layaway donors and decided to visit their local Kmart on Tuesday. Crawford contributed $100 each to two different accounts, and her daughter added about $150.
“I’ve given to some charitable organizations each year around Christmas, but this is the first time I’ve done something like this,” she said. “Some of the layaway accounts were pretty large, and my thinking was that people with larger accounts can probably afford more than people with smaller accounts. Therefore I was more attracted to ones that were a little bit lower.”
The majority of donors are choosing to remain anonymous, and Crawford offered her name only at a reporter’s request.
“As my daughter and I walked out of the store we both had tears in our eyes and we were hugging each other,” Crawford said. “It feels good. It still feels good.”
One theory as to why Kmart has been the focus of the donors is the stores’ long-standing year-round layaway program. Walmart offered a holiday season layaway program this year after five years without one. It ended Dec. 16. Target and many other department stores do not offer layaway.
“Kmart is one of the few stores that runs layaway year-round, and people do use it all year-round,” Cass said. “They use it for back to school, then Halloween, and that leads right into Christmas.”
Although Kmart has seen the bulk of layaway gifting, other stores have been visited by those in a giving mood. A salesperson at Walmart on South Rainbow Boulevard said some layaway accounts were paid off by an anonymous donor last week.
The “layaway angel” phenomenon has proved so contagious that even those on the receiving end are giving back.
“It has not just been the elderly giving. It’s been young people, couples, children, everyone,” Cass said. “A family came in the other day and they were delighted their layaway had been paid off. They had two children with them who had prepaid Visa gift cards for something like $5 each. Well, the children turned around and ask if they can use their gift cards to help pay off someone else’s account.
“It’s been an unforgettable year.”