Monday, October 21, 2013

Our commissary model doesn't work (but it can be fixed)

The average family saves over $4,000 a year shopping at the commissary, yet the junior Sailors that would benefit the most are increasingly not using the commissary.  What is wrong?

My latest trip to the commissary should have been a great experience.  I had my shopping list, I went a little after 0900 when it opened, and since I live on base, the drive is all of five minutes for me.  But honestly, just like my last trip, I hate the experience of shopping at the commissary.

It's not that I don't appreciate the commissary.  I see the savings every time I shop.  Since I buy mainly produce, meats and dairy, I'm making the most of the 30% savings bragged about on the DECA webpage.  I get everything I need, and even when I shop for odd items (like solid blocks of Feta Cheese or select deli meats) I get what I want.  No, my biggest problem is that the commissary, which dates back to 1825, hasn't upgraded its shopping experience to appeal to the shopping habits of the latest crop of junior Sailors.

There are too many horror stories about the commissary to name, but here are a few.  With more Sailors living out in town, purchasing more online, and looking for ways to save time (even if only to waste it on Facebook), the commissary shopping experience is so 1980s for them.  A number of things have to change:

1. Tipping baggers is too hard. No other store pays their baggers in tips only.  I, like many others, don't carry cash.  It's embarrassing to have the bagger walk out and not have money to tip him or her.  Assuming I use a credit card, why can't I add tips to my bill?  Or, perhaps placing an ATM in the store that spit out 10s, 5s, and 1s would help.  Either way, the commissary needs to assume shoppers don't carry cash, and have a way for us to tip baggers.

2. I don't always want a bagger.  If I get five items, I don't want a bagger. Seriously.  And I don't want to use the stupid self-checkout that never works properly.  Give me a line or two for no baggers.  Besides, while I'm standing there I can bag my own groceries.

3. Your apps a little lame.  None of the commissary employees are knowledgeable, so when I go inside and can't find something, I'm condemned to walk the aisles aimlessly.  How about a map?  Even better, how about an app for my iPhone/Droid?  Oh wait, they have an app...but all it does is coupons.  Newsflash: apps need multiple features (and not all of us own iPhones, so please get an Android version) to be useful.  A map would do just that.

4. Online pre-ordering. The commissary has started online preordering, but it's only available at two locations.  Seriously?  Amazon has you beat by how many years?  Get it rolling fast.  This will help reduce the crowd of retirees that can plan their visits in advance.

5. What exactly do you stock? If I want to buy something today from Target, I can go to and find out if the local store has it in stock.  The commissary has no such feature.  Want to know if you'll find your favorite Feta Cheese brand?  Or perhaps you're wondering if the commissary stocks hibiscus tea?  You'll have to go there to find out, and if they don't, now you have to drive somewhere else.  Having a list of products that the local commissary stocks would prevent me from going if they don't stock the item at all.

6. Why can't you scan produce?  Heaven forbid if you scan the bagged apples or boxed tomatoes UPC code instead of punching it in by hand.  Ringing up produce takes forever because you can't use the bar codes on most of the pre-bagged items.  This slows down even the best check out ladies.  Update the scanning system and allow most bar codes, so we don't get stuck in line.

7. How about prescription refills?  Walmart has a pharmacy, eye glass store, photography studio, and typically a Starbucks or Pizza Hut.  While I don't really care about photographs, how awesome would it be to place my prescription refill, go shopping, then as I walk out pick it up at a counter?  I HATE waiting at military hospitals for HOURS trying to get a refill.  This kills two birds with one stone, and has the added benefit of driving more customers to the commissary.

8. You have to sell yourself to junior Sailors.  Walmart, Target, and Krogers all advertise.  The commissary has a great product and is cheaper than everyone else, but the "gouge" is that somehow Walmart beats them out.  Every command has an indoc process...does the commissary send someone to talk to them?  Are there flyers at the barracks?  Is your phone number and hours at the quarterdeck?  Do tenant commands on base know that you cater?  Do not wait for your customers to come to you...go to them!

If we don't use the commissary, it will go away.  There are already Congressmen questioning why we don't simply pay a set amount of money to everyone and cancel the commissary.  If the commissary upgrades itself to match the service level of other similar stores, it can easily get more business.

(this post is not endorsed in any way by the Defense Commissary Agency)