Kmart is a brand in search of itself. It’s needed saving for a long time. I can’t recall a reason to go there, and my significant other can clearly tell you why she never will again.

The brand is troubled. It’s hurt Sears too- they became part of the same company when a financial wizard who knew nothing about retailing, but “saw value” in the real estate that came with the company.

No matter how much money Kmart could spend on advertising this holiday season, they couldn’t have bought the positive PR they’ve received in this area with “anonymous donors” paying off layaway accounts. From the Dayton Daily News:

Kmart stores across the region report that anonymous donors are paying off the remaining balances of layaway accounts of strangers in a showing of holiday generosity.

Kmart store managers in Trotwood, Fairborn, Beavercreek and Riverside said unknown visitors are acting as secret Santas and spending hundreds of dollars to cover the layaway bills of complete strangers, especially people who are late on their payments and who are in danger of having their orders canceled.

Most of the donors also look to pay off come-due or past-due layaway accounts that contain toys or gifts, hoping to prevent some area families from having an empty space beneath their Christmas trees.

“They are looking for layaways with children’s clothing in it and toys in it to try to help out families that might be in need,” said Ron Monmaney, store manager of the Kmart in Riverside. “It must be the season.”

On Saturday, two unknown individuals spent more than $1,000 at the Riverside Kmart to pay off the layaway accounts of six strangers. Monmaney said the customers were “elated” to find out their orders were paid off, and they were touched by the gesture.

On at least five occasions in the last two weeks, unknown individuals walked up to the layaway counter at the Kmart in Beavercreek and paid for the accounts of strangers who were late on their payments or who were struggling to make them, said Jerry Campana, the store’s manager. He estimates the mysterious Good Samaritans spent at least $800.

“I think it’s truly amazing,” Campana said. “The best part of it is they are not doing it for any kind of recognition … they are just going out and doing it out of the goodness of their hearts and for people they don’t even know.”

The random acts of kindness started earlier this month at Kmarts in Michigan, but stories of the activity spread through news coverage and online, and it is now taking place all over Ohio and the country.

via Anonymous donors paying off Kmart layaway bills.

When you look at Kmart shoppers and realize that the people using layaway are at the absolute bottom of the income spectrum, the idea that put stuff on layaway with the hope that some “wealthy donor” will pay it off works the same way that buying a lottery ticket does: building an unrealistic dream. Is there any tool more used in advertising?

Supposed Kmart decided to invest between $3K and $5K per store in “anonymous donors” - compared to spending it on TV ads nationally. With 1,382 stores nationally, at $4k per store: that works out to $5.52M, which is a 2.5% of a  2009 budget of  $224M. The payback in free mentions of this “feel good” story far exceeds what paid media would achieve.

Considering Kmart has gone through upteen store prototypes and new logo launches in the last ten years, maybe it’s just time to be the hail-mary store for the poor and do it better than everyone else.

Sometimes the best advertising isn’t advertising at all.

What can you do with advertising dollars that might be better spent creating positive PR?