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Kmart Charity Phenomenon: Uplifting for the Stock?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Stories abound of Good Samaritans recently visiting Kmart stores and paying off Christmas layaway bills for shoppers who may be struggling to make ends meet.

“At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents.” – Anonymous donors pay strangers’ Christmas layaway accounts,, Dec. 16, 2011

Now you know I write about stocks, and I’ll get to that, but I want to talk a little about Christmas and charity first.

I saw this story about generous people paying off layaways at Kmart about a week ago.  I posted it on Facebook and suggested that people humanize their charitable giving by helping their fellow man in a concrete way.

The general problem that many of us experience in giving is that we know that, if we give to a big organization, quite a few dollars go towards administrative expenses, and quite a few dollars go to unrepentant addicted people.  We are left with the niggling feeling that “there’s got to be a better way”.  And so I encourage people to walk into the local church and say, “Who is unemployed and needs help with their utility bills?”  Or visit a sick person and mow their lawn.  Or pay the annual school book fees for the children of a struggling divorced mom.  We don’t have to give to the United Way.  We can give to human beings, and it’s likely to be a more uplifting experience.

This morning I saw another article about charity at Kmart, and decided that would be my next topic.  Later in the day, I headed down to the County Court to begin a small claims court proceeding.  It left a very negative taste in my mouth — I don’t like hostility and arguments and such, and the last thing I want to do is fight with people.  But the landlord refused to return the security deposit, and if they’re doing it to me, they’re doing it to everybody, so somebody has to put a stop to it.  And that somebody is going to be me.

As I drove away, a little sour at the prospect of a fight with the landlord, I turned on Dave Ramsey’s radio show, and he was doing a segment on charitable giving.  Lots of people were calling in to discuss their joyous giving and receiving experiences.  And then one of them said, “I went to Kmart to pay off someone’s layaway bill.”

And right away I turned to the right and headed down the road to Target.  I needed some of that joy.  The lady at the Target service desk told me that Target doesn’t do layaway, but suggested I go to Wal-Mart or Kmart.

I googled Kmart locations, and there weren’t any nearby, but there was a Wal-Mart a block away.  I went to the Wal-Mart customer service desk and stood in a long line.  I was suddenly quite nervous, and I had a lump in my throat.  Why was this scary?

When I spoke to the lady at the desk, she said that the layaway area was in the back of the store, and “today’s the last day!”  Last day for what?  And then I realized that if people didn’t pay for their layaway bills today, their items would be restocked so that Wal-Mart could sell them before Christmas.  It added some urgency to my plan.

At the back of the store, I found a service area with four clerks and a customer paying off a $276 layaway bill for electronic items.  One of the clerks — a young, smiling Hispanic woman — jokingly asked if he could pay off her layaway bill, and kept glancing nervously at a little bicycle behind the counter.

The lady who waited on me was rather confused as to what I wanted to do, and I didn’t want to be loud and let everybody know that I was there to pay off a layaway bill for a stranger.  But she got her supervisor involved, so the jig was up.  The supervisor, Gina, realized right away what I intended to do.  She told me they recently had a man come in and pay $100 each towards three different layaway bills.  Gina got busy reviewing the layaway tickets, but each time she found one with toys on it, it also had things like t.v.s and Ipods.  Gina understood the purchasing profile of a poor person, and these people weren’t poor enough.

Then she asked me to step aside with her, to a seating area, at which point she whispered to me, “My co-worker has two little boys, she’s pregnant, and her husband just left her.  She wants to buy her boy that bicycle, but she knows she’s going to have to put it back on the sales floor today.  Would you like to pay for the bicycle?”  Absolutely!

I was thrilled to be able to see the actual person who would benefit from my $61.  We agreed to keep it a secret until I left the store.

Driving home, you can bet that the landlord conflict didn’t cross my mind again, and I was sort of teary thinking about the young mom and her lot in life.

And now it’s time to write about Kmart, which we all want to root for, but Kmart didn’t really do anything in this story.  Kmart just provided a venue.  As did Wal-Mart.  The real story here is the human spirit of survival and generosity.  If we have a life worth living, we take turns swaying from one to the other, so that we can each experience both the joys of giving and receiving.

As for Kmart stock, it’s a no-go.  Kmart is a subsidiary of Sears Holdings Corporation (SHLD, $46.16).  And Wall Street consensus estimates show that Sears will be losing money in fiscal years 2012 through 2014.  Sears is apparently in survival mode, and with a spirit of generosity, I wish them well.

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