When Walmart shoppers visited their local stores this week, some walked out with a holiday surprise. On Thursday, the actor and producer Tyler Perry announced on Instagram that he would pay off layaway accounts in two stores in the Atlanta region, totaling $432,635. Days earlier, Gayle Benson, a billionaire philanthropist and owner of the New Orleans Saints, donated $93,502 to pay off accounts for 408 customers.
LeMia Jenkins, a spokeswoman for Walmart, confirmed Mr. Perry’s donation and said it covered 1,487 customers. On Instagram, Mr. Perry said the offer would apply to items placed on layaway before 9:30 a.m. Thursday. “I was trying to do this anonymously but oh well!!!” he wrote.
Zena Williams, manager of Walmart on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, where Ms. Benson paid off debts, said one customer was so moved that “she thanked Jesus right there, giving praise at the cash register.” Others walked away in shock. “We have so many customers on a fixed income,” Ms. Williams said. “Layaways are key.”
Mrs. Benson declined through a spokesman to be interviewed. Hers, along with Mr. Perry’s, is one of a number of charitable gifts earmarked for layaway purchases at Walmart in recent weeks.
Gayle Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, paid off nearly $100,000 worth of layaway orders at a New Orleans Walmart.CreditBill Feig/Associated Press
Another donor showed up at a Walmart in Uniondale, N.Y.; the store posted a photograph on Facebook of customers’ paid receipts. And in Derby, Vt., a man was approached by a shopper after he had paid the debts of several people. He asked to remain anonymous, according to the customer, Julie Gates.
Ms. Gates told WCAX-TV, the local CBS affiliate, that she was picking up a package when she overheard the man asking if he could pay for another person’s items. He turned to her and offered the same. When she asked him who could afford to do this, she said he replied, “Santa Claus can.”
Ms. Jenkins said the company has not seen an unusual surge in such donations this year, but social media has afforded gift-giving more prominence. “Usually donors like to remain anonymous,” she said.
Layaway programs started during the Great Depression in the 1930s, when some families didn’t have enough money to pay for needed items. They fell out of favor in the 1980s, with the rise of easy credit, and became popular again in the 2010s when Americans suffered job losses and saw their home values plummet after the recession. Unlike credit cards, most layaway plans don’t charge interest on purchases.
Mrs. Benson, 71, became the sole owner of the New Orleans Saints after her husband, Tom, died in March. Mr. Benson, who owned car dealerships and invested in banks, bought the Saints in 1985.
Ms. Williams said she got a call on Nov. 29 saying that Mrs. Benson wanted to cover the cost of customers’ layaway accounts. On Tuesday a check was delivered and shoppers were informed that their debts were forgiven.
“Most people called to see if it was real,” she said.