This holiday shopping season, a remarkable phenomenon is taking place: people using Walmart’s layaway service, likely for gifts for family and friends, are having their balances wiped out by celebrities and anonymous philanthropists! All over the country, hundreds of thousands of dollars are being paid out to the country’s largest retailer, giving free Christmases to consumers using the layaway desk as an alternative to credit cards. Tyler Perry, Kid Rock, and even the owner of the New Orleans Saints are getting in on the cheery action.
Quick everyone! Go put your holiday shopping on the Walmart layaway desk! Maybe a Secret Santa will pay it off for you!
Call me a Grinch (I am) or perhaps an anti-capitalist conspiracy theorist (also true), but I’m a little suspicious of all of this. Layaway is traditionally used as a way for poorer consumers that largely don’t have access to lines of credit to pay incrementally for larger purchases while having a minimal amount of interest run against them. It’s also not a bad strategy to keep larger gifts hidden from their recipients and a pretty decent way to ensure an expensive electronic or hot must-have toy doesn’t run out of stock before you’ve put away enough cash to go grab it. Trying to avoid last-minute shipping gouges or delays? Layaway!
The fee structures differ from store to store, as well as in different levels of predatory practice, but it’s largely not horrible to put things on layaway. My red flag here, and this is all pretty baseless, is whether or not Walmart or a PR company is orchestrating these payments and media reports to concentrate layaway business at a single retailer. It’s true that not a lot of stores offer layaway anymore and the option isn’t available at online shopping giants like Amazon without a credit check or membership, but it seems like a lot of “free advertising” once you calculate the sum total cost of these payouts. Is this a viral marketing strategy, or has a generous streak in the rich and/or famous struck this year?
I’m never going to poo-poo lower-income people getting free stuff, but it seems awfully convenient that entertainment staples of both white and black working class people (Kid Rock and Tyler Perry) are at the forefront of these stories. Don’t fit into those marketing demographics? Anonymous people are paying off stuff too! Perhaps this is all looking at a gift horse in the mouth anyway, and my bias towards advertising, holiday shopping, and capitalism in general is tainting what’s probably just corporate goodwill (what?) and the Good Thing of people who put a bunch of stuff on layaway getting it for free. Maybe I’m just too cynical.