For many Walmart employees this holiday season, it's not uncommon to see angels.
Mitchell Ruff, a Walmart store manager in Hendersonville, N.C., will admit that economic times are tough. But for Ruff, it's the hard times that show the true quality of humanity — especially at Christmas.
All around the country this giving season, many families in need are getting a dose of Christmas charity as anonymous strangers — dubbed as angels in the retail industry — are paying off their layaway bills.
Though accounts of the first layaway angel or secret Santa differ, the stories share many similarities. An anonymous shopper picks up the bill for a family who has set up a payment plan for holiday gifts, most commonly toys and electronics.
The Layaway Angels program, which has picked up notoriety for anonymous donations since 2011, is used by major corporations such as Walmart, Kmart and Toys R Us.
A dose of humanity
Ruff, who has been with the Walmart company for 23 years, has seen this act of charity performed over and over the past couple years. It never fails to touch him, he said.
"I'm a big-hearted sap," he said with his rich Southern drawl. And it's stories like the two women who have come into his store the past two years that make him emotional.
Two women from the Ashville, N.C., area in their mid-50s paid off 10 customer layaways this year. Combined, these accounts average about $2,000.
Ruff said that these women, who remain anonymous even to the Hendersonville store, can afford this great act of charity because of a trust fund they inherited that they wish to use to help others.
But they are impacting more than the 10 families behind the accounts they paid for.
"The word kind of travels in the community," Ruff said. "My associates are part of the community and once they get excited, it just starts spreading. You have angels coming out of nowhere to help."
Though not every angel can pay off multiple accounts, they give where they can to help pay off a stranger's account.
"If they can pay off what they can, it gives anyone the help to put Christmas dinner on the table."
Big dollars given anonymously
According to the National Retail Federation, the layaway program has always existed but saw little use until the economic downturn of 2008 led to an increased surge in the program's popularity.
Over the past few years, Kmart has seen $1.5 million in layaway contracts paid off by Layaway Angels nationwide, according to a Kmart spokesman.
While the average donation amount varies, donors seem to have a similar goal — most Layaway Angels paid off contracts on children's gifts like toys and clothing, a Kmart spokesman said.
According to the National Retail Federation and BIGInsight, as reported in Forbes magazine, layaway shoppers generally earn a household average of $49,000 a year as opposed to the average holiday shopper who earns roughly $56,000.
"Layaway Angels are completely organic, or consumer-generated, and not part of a proactive company program. Therefore, we don’t necessarily keep track of every single angel, or how much money or how many contracts are paid off," the Kmart spokesman said.
Kmart does keep an online map of Layaway Angels throughout the country to track the giving.
Walmart was unable to give exact totals of layaway donations from earlier years, but has reported that since the layaway program began again in September, more than 1,000 layaway angels have paid for strangers' Christmas gifts nationwide this year.
Walmart's layaway program will run until Dec. 13. Kmart's layaway program is available to customers during the holidays and year-round.
The media isn't the only one promoting the idea of paying for a stranger's Christmas. The blogosphere has added its voice to the phenomenon as well.
It started with a desire to help others. Rants from Mommyland bloggers, Julianna W. Miner, Claire Goss and Kristin Wilson Keppler, who blog under the pseudonyms Lydia, Guru and Kate respectively, were unable to comment on this story, but shared a blog post earlier this month about their plans to pay off layaway accounts anonymously.
"This time of year, I've always enjoyed hearing about people who go to places like Walmart and Toys R Us and pay off the layaways of total strangers. I mentioned it to Kate and Guru, who enthusiastically agreed that we should give it a try. While wearing elf hats," Lydia posted.
Included with her invitation to her readers to participate in holiday giving are some tips for paying off a stranger's layaway account.
"Pick a time when you know the store will not be crowded. You can't expect a customer service representative to work with you in this if they're swamped," according to the blog. "If when you get there … the customer service person seems annoyed by you or doesn't get it, talk to someone else, come back later, or got to another store. Don't get upset, just roll with it."