In the Frank Capra movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” little Zuzu tells her father, “…every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” That’s exactly what happened across the country this holiday season. As cash register receipts rang through with the words, “paid in full”, a Layaway Angel got their wings.
The “pay it forward” movement swept from coast to coast in the last quarter of 2011 when Americans read news articles and heard TV reports  about citizens paying off layaway merchandise for families they’ve never met. The benevolent mood and generosity spread faster than worldwide flash mobs. Tears flooded layaway desks when customers were surprised to hear someone had paid off their bill. And so the term “Layaway Angel” entered our lexicon, a new altruistic hero for this decade. But is it really altruism?
Ask any Layaway Angel and they will admit the act of joining the mass of humanitarians is not entirely unselfish. While you don’t get to meet the recipients, there’s certainly a warm fuzzy feeling associated with giving in this way. Unlike dropping money in a pot for the Salvation Army, although a worthwhile donation, it lacks a personal connection and charm that paying off a layaway bill offers. Although each store offering layaway operates differently, most have a designated area where layaway items are housed. Layaway Angels are escorted to the cartons where they can see the merchandise on hold. Store personal can tell them what the balance is on the items and how much of the bill has already been paid.
Some merchandise can tug at the heartstrings, especially cartons containing children’s toys. Browsing the stash you can imagine the disappointment of a little girl not receiving that pink bicycle with the glittery handlebars if the family cannot pay the remainder of the bill. A personal connection is made even though you don’t know the names of the family members or their financial situation.
Why People Use Layaway
It’s not a given that people use layaway because they’re poor, although you’ll find stores with layaway plans in areas where people are struggling financially, or the immigrant population is high and people do not have credit cards. Layaway plans do not require a credit check while credit card companies do.
It’s taking a big leap to think that everyone with layaways is needy. Maybe a family will choose a layaway so they won’t have toys in the house until Christmas Eve. People may also use layaway because they’re afraid the item will sell out, or because they want to take advantage of a sale. People who are employed may look forward to an annual bonus, one that is guaranteed. They use layaway plans because they know they will be able to pay it off when the holidays roll around.
When you consider upscale stores rarely have layaway programs, you can’t help but consider the economic divide. While there are many possibilities for using layaway, Angels didn’t let skepticism guide them this year. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, bad economic news was balanced by a flood of TV footage from recipients who worried about how they would be able to collect their merchandise because of lost jobs and health issues, only to find their bills had been cleared. Although they remained anonymous, Angels were allowed to write a note on the paid receipt. Many included, “pay it forward” or “do something nice for someone else”.
For Angels, the receipt was the only form of actual contact with the recipient. Witnessing the gratitude of this far-reaching phenomenon from their home’s flat screen TVs, was reward enough.
The End of Layaway Angels?
Can you remember when most stores had a layaway plan? Families of all economic levels used them. The two biggest annual shopping events for customers were back to school and Christmas. Mothers enjoyed buying school clothes and Christmas gifts in small increments, rather than having to make one huge purchase.
Credit cards caused layaway plans to go out of favor. Stores liked the idea of no longer keeping records of payments and turned the job over to the banks issuing the credit cards.
Layaway plans have always been a burden for stores. Some Walmart stores have already informed their customers that the plan will be discontinued in 2012. Stores without big warehouse space bring in vehicles like trailers where layaway items are suspended in some comatose state of not being purchased but not being available.
Logistically, this causes more physical work for employees, as well as additional accounting issues. When buyers do not follow through and purchase as promised, merchandise must be returned to inventory.
Since typical pay off periods can be anywhere from 6 – 12 weeks, in the months between the initial store layaway purchase and Christmas, anything can happen to change a family’s finances. What happens when people find they can’t afford to pay for the rest of the layaway? Policies vary but stories range from people losing all the money they’ve put down on the merchandise, to others saying the money is refunded minus a nominal service charge for holding the items and then returning them to stock. The total cost of the layaway items also affects the agreement and fees. Some plans have a $50 minimum. Service fees are not universal and range from $5 to 5% for about $250. Stores may agree to refund the money you’ve paid when you opt out of the layaway agreement, but they may only do so with a store card, not cash.
In view of all this, it seems ironic that when you shop online, you’ll also find layaway options at elayaway. The site lists more than 1,000 stores online and 18 product categories from which to choose. Elayaway’s calculator is a handy tool that allows you to divide your purchase into 3 to 13 payments. Payments are automatically deducted from your bank account. When you have paid in full, your order is shipped to you. There’s no cost to register at the site and like many stores, there won’t be a credit check. But that may be unnecessary because you have to have an active bank account to use the site.
If you didn’t get a chance to participate in your city as a Layaway Angel this holiday season, you might find it a bit more difficult to do so in the future with the number of stores discontinuing the plan. Companies with current layaway programs are listed below. Decisions to discontinue may not necessarily be nationwide for chain stores. Call to see the status of the stores near you.
Babies R Us
Burlington Coat Factory
Toys R' Us