Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he's just paid off your layaway bill.
So-called Layaway Santas aren't new, but they have been growing ever since an Associated Press story pointed out the phenomenon in 2011. Despite the sluggish economy, or perhaps because of it, more people than ever seem to be driven to be some struggling family's Little Saint Nick.
Wal-Mart said it has tracked more than 1,000 instances so far this season of strangers paying down others' layaway accounts. Kmart said strangers have paid more than $1.5 million in other's layaway contracts over the years. Toys R Us said it recorded 794 layaway Santa visits in 2012, matching each one with a $200 donation to Toys for Tots, for a total of $158,800. For this year, it's pledged to donate up to $1 million.
For Dave Wilson, 65, who went from living on a poor farm in Iowa to owning 17 car dealerships in Orange County, Calif., it's a way to give back.
Every December, he gives his aptly named wife, Holly, a Kmart receipt for her birthday. On it are listed hundreds of transactions, all the layaway account balances he's paid off at his local store. "She said it was the best birthday present ever," he said. In 2011, it was 260 accounts to the tune of nearly $16,000. In 2012, it was more than 320 accounts and $18,000. This year he plans for a repeat.
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"It's not passing out Christmas hams or turkeys," said Wilson. "They have to pay at least 10 percent ... this is something people have thought about and made an investment in."
Here's how it works.
Under layaway, customers purchase items, but the store holds on to the physical merchandise as they pay it off in bits over a few weeks. For those with uncertain cash flows and limited access to credit, it's a structured way to save up for the holidays. But even this system can be a stretch too far to make those final payments, coming due at many stores at the end of this week.
Unpaid, those gifts risk going back on the shelves instead of under the tree—unless a miracle happens. Enter the "Layaway Santa."