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)


  1. While I'm normally a huge advocate of your posts and tend to learn something new with almost every read, I have to defend the commissary system to some degree on this one:

    1. Tipping baggers is too hard.
    2. I don't always want a bagger.

    - I the last two duty stations I have been at have all had an express line (10 items or less) where there was no bagger. These commissaries also had ATMs, and when I paid with plastic, were always able to give cash-back in small denominations.

    3. Your apps a little lame.
    4. Online pre-ordering.
    5. What exactly do you stock?
    6. Why can't you scan produce?

    - You point out that large retailers like Target and Walmart are able to do this, but I have never shopped at a grocery store that excelled in any of these areas either. The even big name grocery chains like Kroger, Safeway, Giant don't have any of the things you're requesting of the commissary, which by design, operates on a bare-bones budget. If you want the commissary to provide services like this, they'll have the pay for it, thereby raising prices...

    7. How about prescription refills?

    - I can only imagine the huge bureaucracy that would be involved in trying to get Tricare / Express Scripts / BUMED on the same page with another agency like the commissary. It will just never happen.

    8. You have to sell yourself to junior Sailors.

    - COMPLETELY AGREE !!! But, this effort should be on us as leaders. You ask: "Is your number on the command quarterdeck?" only if someone like you or me put it there. We are responsible for making sure that our junior sailors understand the benefits they are entitled to and encourage them to use them.

  2. Brando, thank you for your comments!

    My commissary also has an express line...but what if you're buying for a family? I often go after work, have no cash in my pocket, and with the number of items I can't avoid going to a regular line. My commissary doesn't have a nearby ATM, and I don't use a debit card. I'm not against tipping baggers, I just wish it was easy, like tipping a waitress on your credit card at a restaurant.

    For the second point, the commissary will go out of business if it isn't used. Updating its way of business means it will get more business and make more profit. App programming, online preordeing, a decent website, and modifications to the UPC bar code list are cheap. None of these require massive purchases in hardware or software, and yet they will make big differences in the amount of traffic generated at the commissary.

    As for prescription refills, how many people get refills already at places like CVS? At some point, we need to get over the bureucratic regulations of BUMED and make it easier to do the routine things.

    I agree partially with your last point, but the reality is the onus is on the commissary. Right now there is a lot of talk about cutting it as a benefit. If I had a program potentially getting cut, I would do everything in my power to show its benefit to all commands, lest people agree that it isn't needed.

    I like the commissary, and I don't want it cut, but I do want it to have a positive shopping experience for both myself and my junior sailors.

  3. I have seen pharmacy pick-ups and refills in an exchange, I don’t know why this couldn’t be done at a commissary as well. My wife and I (currently in the Ft. Meade/Annapolis area) rarely use the commissary. In part our family is small and don’t see as large a savings as some do, in a much larger part the savings are not worth the hassle.

    -Parking is horrible, has been for years, there has been a construction project in the parking lot for over 18 months.

    -Selection on some basic items is rather poor; requiring a trip to a commercial store to augment the commissary run. Some commissaries I have ben to also have a very hit and miss produce section, don’t know why their supplier is so much less reliable than the one for a commercial store 4 miles away.

    -Customer service is not good. Unhelpful staff on the floor, sometimes rude cashiers and baggers. At least at a commercial store if I do have a problem in this area I can talk to a manager, at the commissary it is futile.

    -Closed on MON to restock/inventory. Giant, Safeway, Kroger and the like manage to run their stores without having to close one day a week (maybe doing this with a night shift.) Also, if there is a holiday on the normal day to be closed, they take a second day during the week to do stocking and inventory.

    IN the past, when the base community was just that – a community of its own from the off base community the commissary was where the military shopped. I think in part as you see more and more military families living off post, DeCA has to find better ways to appeal to their customer base, and make some of the benefit of the commissary (savings) outweigh the quirks (hassles) of shopping on base otherwise they will see sales decline.

  4. They say b aggers is an "option" but multiple times I have said "oh no its fine, ill take them myself" 2 things happen its either they ignore my request in an effort to force a tip out of us or I am met with attitude from the bagger feeling offended. On the occasion I was ignored I don't always carry cash any paying with a credit card it doesn't give you a cash back option. I apologized to the bagger after I was met rudely with "what?! No tip?!" It made me feel terrible. This kinda of stigma makes me not want to shop there. If you don't throw a fit, the b aggers will take your groceries anyway and they don'task you if you would like the carry out "option" they just start throwing them in the bagger cart.