November 27, 2014
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Spreading Holiday Cheer
Generous layaway donors multiply
John Howell and Meg Fraser

There’s a virus out there – it’s called generosity – and it has a lot of people smiling, even tearing up.

News that people were anonymously paying off layaway accounts at Benny’s stores across the state for others who are having a tough time spread quickly since the first act of generosity last week. The acts of kindness can be traced to a Kmart store in Michigan where it was first reported.

“I have never ever seen anything like it,” Benny’s vice president Arnold Bromberg said yesterday.

As the news got out, the phenomenon has taken off. It seems generosity has no bounds and no store is immune.

“This is a good part to the Internet,” said Bromberg. “It spread like wildfire. We’re seeing an outpouring now.”

While he doesn’t have a count of how many people have volunteered to pay off the layaway accounts of others, he said it has happened in all 32 stores, including those in Greenville, Warwick, Cranston and Providence. Amounts people have given have ranged from $5 or $10 to several hundred dollars, he said.

Frequently those looking to help others inquire of store managers of who appears to need the most help. Layaways of clothing and toys are often targeted on the assumption those are items of need for families with kids.

Bromberg said Christmas layaways traditionally start in October, although the store does it year-round. Establishing a layaway requires a small deposit. Some people pay regularly until they have paid off the amount and then take the item. Others wait until it’s closer to Christmas and come in with a lump sum.

Bromberg said that was the case when bank and credit union Christmas clubs were the rage.

If payment is not completed, or the customer no longer wants the item, the full amount of the deposit and any payments is issued as a store credit, Bromberg said.

At the Garfield Avenue Kmart in Johnston, donors have contributed everywhere from $100 to $3,000, and more than 20 customers have received the good news that their holiday debt has been paid off.

“People are coming in almost every day now,” said store manager Jessica Parkinson. “All of them say that they want to be anonymous.”

In one case, two men came in and paid off 15 different layaway accounts, which amounted to $3,000 in gifts for families struggling to make ends meet with the added challenge of providing a merry Christmas for their children and grandchildren.

“The customers, when you call them, they ask, ‘Is this a joke?’” Parkinson said. “The other day, this one lady came in and paid off two layaway accounts. One of the women is raising her grandson who is handicapped and she was telling me that she didn’t have money for a tree this year. It was an amazing story.”

Working in the retail industry during the holidays can be challenging, to say the least, and customers are not always in the best moods when they speak with customer service representatives. More often than not, Parkinson says that when she’s being called down to speak with a customer, it’s for a complaint.

Now, she looks forward to the calls.

“It’s surprising,” she said, “but it’s really good.”

Not every store with a layaway program has seen a surge in community generosity.

At the Wal-Mart on Plainfield Pike in Johnston, there have not been any layaway donors, nor have they seen an up-tick in customers utilizing the layaway program. At the Burlington Coat Factory on Atwood Avenue, customers take advantage of layaway all year, but no donors have stepped forward to pay off accounts. Nationwide, though, Burlington has seen several payoff incidents across the country.

“It makes you sit back,” said Bromberg. “Just when you think you have seen it all, this happens.”

While people have paid off layaway accounts for others, usually friends or family, Bromberg said in its 87-year history nothing of this magnitude of generosity has happened before at Benny’s.


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