National News

Walmart Shoppers Get Holiday Surprise From Saints’ Owner: Debts Forgiven

Posted December 6, 2018 3:09 p.m. EST

When New Orleans shoppers visited their local Walmart on Tuesday, some walked out with a holiday surprise. Gayle Benson, a billionaire philanthropist and owner of the New Orleans Saints, donated $93,502 to pay off layaway accounts for 408 customers.

Zena Williams, manager of Walmart on Tchoupitoulas Street, 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,” Williams said. “Layaways are key.”

Benson declined through a spokesman to be interviewed. Hers is one of a number of charitable gifts earmarked for layaway purchases at Walmart in recent weeks.

In Longmont, Colorado, last month, an anonymous donor gave $45,000 to pay for layaway items, according to a local news report. In Philadelphia, a person covered about $29,000 in unpaid bills.

Another donor showed up at a Walmart in Uniondale, New York; the store posted a photograph on Facebook of customers’ paid receipts. And in Derby, Vermont, 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.

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.”

LeMia Jenkins, director of media relations for Walmart, 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 strapped 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.

Benson, 71, became sole owner of the New Orleans Saints after her husband, Tom, died in March. Tom Benson, who owned car dealerships and invested in banks, bought the Saints in 1985.

Williams said she got a call Nov. 29 saying that 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.