How Layaway Is Starting to Resemble the Lottery

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One of last year’s feel-good stories for the holidays was the rise of “layaway Santas,” in which random people decided out of the goodness of their hearts to pay off total strangers’ layaway accounts—usually at Kmart, usually when toys (and kids) were involved.

This year, retailers are working on ways that’ll ensure more “secret Santa” or “layaway angel” miracles ahead. In the process of pumping up the likelihood of someone else covering a customer’s layaway account balance, the stores are probably also increasing the odds of customers putting items on layaway in the first place.

The holiday season battles over layaway began early this year. Walmart launched its layaway program a month earlier than it did in 2011, and Toys R Us introduced free layaway through October 31—an offer it recently extended through December 16.

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So far, layaway has been a hit for retailers, with a surge of shoppers opening accounts, putting down deposits, and agreeing to payment plans weeks before Halloween, let alone Thanksgiving or Christmas, arrived.

In the latest stage of retailer layaway game, marketers seem to be getting the idea into customers’ heads that layaway is something of a lottery. For everyone who puts items on layaway, there’s a chance that the merchandise wind up being free, or close to it. Wouldn’t the possibility of free stuff make you more inclined to put goods on layaway?

Kmart, one of the few retailers that offers layaway year-round, was the sight of the most Layaway Santa activity last year. For the 2012 holidays, Kmart is getting directly involved in the trend. Each week until November 17, each Kmart location hosts a Big Layaway Giveaway drawing, in which the retailer will pay off the layaway account balance (up to $500) of a winning customer. To have a chance to win, of course, you must have items on layaway with Kmart.

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Toys R Us, meanwhile, is demonstrating its generosity by donating $200 in toys to charity each time a Layaway Santa pays off the account of a stranger, according to CNBC. Such an incentive may entice a would-be layaway angel to get off the fence and pay off a stranger’s account—at Toys R Us, mind you, where one’s charity is essentially matched dollar for dollar, rather than at Kmart or Walmart.

Could such a program also entice a family into placing gifts on layaway in the first place, or to perhaps put more items on layaway than they might have otherwise? It couldn’t hurt.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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