Cyndi Pence didn't immediately recognize the voice as that of a "layaway angel."
The call came to the Walla Walla Kmart on Tuesday. "I've been reading about people coming into the stores and paying off layaways," the woman on the other end of the phone began.
For a moment, Pence thought she was being approached by a reporter about the layaway phenomenon that has swept the country. At Kmart stores across America anonymous customers have been offering to pay off layaway balances of complete strangers. Toys and clothes -- presumably gifts for the holidays -- are being paid off in a sweeping gesture of human kindness. The story has been making headlines ever since. But the woman on the other end of the phone wasn't interested in writing about it.
"I was wondering if you had any left," she asked Pence, who manages the local Kmart.
A short time later a woman arrived at the Isaacs Avenue store and paid off four layaways totaling about $250. Pence isn't sure if it was the same person. But she has a hunch it was.
What started as a kind gesture first reported at a Michigan store in the working-class town of Bockton has snowballed into a full-blown movement inspiring the spirit of giving through random acts of kindness.
More than 1,000 layaway accounts adding up to more than $400,000 have been paid off at Kmart stores, a spokesperson for Sears Holding Corp. reportedly told ABC News.
Word of the phenomenon has traveled from state to state since the story first circulated more than a week ago. As soon as it did, the Walla Walla Kmart began receiving its own visits from layaway angels.
Last Friday someone paid $50 toward a layaway balance. The next day another customer paid off a stranger's balance that was just under that amount. On Sunday seven layaways totaling around $500 were paid off by another person.
"I've worked in retail for years and I've never heard of anything like it," said Kmart employee Connie Russell, who splits her time between housewares and layaway.
Russell and colleague Alyse Darrow have made most of the calls to the recipients of the gifts. The initial reactions have universally been disbelief and shock. Most of the beneficiaries have not been familiar with the movement despite the widespread reports.
Russell said the sounds of active children in the background during one telephone call were quickly drowned by the sound of tears when one recipient heard the news.
Moved by the generosity, Darrow had a hard time keeping it together herself when she contacted a woman Wednesday morning to say her layaway balance had been paid by a stranger.
"I was just shaking the whole time," she said.
"It's weird being the bearer of good news. Normally when we're calling it's to tell them their layaway is being (canceled)" because it's overdue.
In fact, at least half of the layaways that have been paid off were delinquent, store officials said. That means the purchases would have been canceled and the items returned to the shelves.
Employees know virtually nothing about the benefactors except that they want to help. One contributor told Russell she wanted to make payments on some of the balances because she knows what it's like to hit hard times. "Her husband lost his job at one time and they were in a tough spot," Russell said. "They wanted to help some people out now."
Employees also don't know much about the recipients, except that they appear to need a helping hand. They typically have toys and children's items in their layaway packages and are selected because of it.
As a side note, Pence said the layaways are paid down to as little as 1 cent. The accounts must show some type of balance in order to remain active in the layaway system, she said.
She said the store probably has anywhere from 150 to 200 layaways right now. Winter is one of the busiest times for layaways, next to back-to-school and the start of summer, Pence said.
"It's a convenient way for somebody to pay," she explained.
Items can typically be put on layaway for eight weeks. Customers make a deposit on the items, and then make a payment every two weeks until the balance is paid. A 12-week program also exists for purchases that total more than $300.
"The last two years we've done a lot more layaways than we used to," Pence said. "Last year was a real biggie, and this year's been pretty consistent."
She said customers generally opt for layaway for one of three reasons: They want to get a jump on holiday shopping; they want to start buying the items without having the merchandise in their homes; or they can't afford to buy it all at once.
For the latter, the anonymous payments this season are completing the Christmas celebration for some families who otherwise face losing their purchases. "It's just something you don't expect, especially with the economy being so bad," Russell said.
"It's nice to see people wanting to help each other," Darrow added.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8321.