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More food options, better access coming for commissary customers

VIRGINIA BEACH, Virginia — Big plans are in the works for commissary shoppers, as officials want to entice more eligible shoppers to take advantage of the benefits of military grocery stores.

“Half of our customers are choosing not to shop, even though we saved [customers] 25.5% last year, and we’re at 25% this year” compared to civilian grocery stores, Defense Commissary Agency Director John Hall said at a recent meeting of the American Logistics Association.

“In certain categories, the savings are almost unbelievable. With meat, we’re at 40% and have very, very high quality,” he said.

Hall is working on several initiatives to better serve customers, from newly allowing troops to use their meal cards to purchase food, to expanding the number of items on sale.

“Part of it is the price savings we give, but part of it is what we offer,” Hall said. “We want to look, feel, and have products available that look like commercial grocery chains.”

Those initiatives include:

  • Possibly offering more prepared foods — ready to cook, ready to eat, and ready to heat — in stores that have space.
  • Expanding seafood offerings.
  • Expanding the military’s grocery-delivery service to include all stateside commissaries this year, up from eight stores that currently offer the option.
  • Working with the Army and Air Force to allow service members to use their meal card benefits at the commissary. “When I visit commissaries, I see service members in line buying at the deli,” Hall said. “They’re using their own money, and choosing not to use that benefit that can get a free meal essentially, at the dining facility,” he said. Being able to use that meal card benefit “will be a huge, huge change,” he said.
  • Offering bulk delivery of grocery items to military units. Hall is also reviving the Guard and Reserve’s “on-site sales,” where commissaries took orders from eligible shoppers who lived far from a store and delivered their items to a selected location for pickup. The commissary agency expects the first on-site sales will take place in June or July.
  • Expanding the number of Army installations with conveniently located outposts or kiosks supplied by the commissary. Soldiers can pick up sandwiches, sushi, salads, breakfast sandwiches, fresh-cut fruit and drinks. Hall also plans to begin offering prepared foods in the kiosks.

Anyone with a DOD Common Access Card can purchase what’s available at the outposts or kiosks using their meal card or other forms of payment. Dining facility workers order food for kiosks and outposts from the commissary through a master catalog vetted by an Army dietitian.

There are currently 15 such outposts at 13 installations. Officials aim to launch 13 more this year at nine locations: Ansbach, Germany; Fort Campbell, Kentucky (three locations); Fort Liberty South (two locations) and Fort Liberty North, North Carolina; Fort Stewart, Georgia; Fort Drum, New York; Fort Cavazos, Texas (two locations); Fort Riley, Kansas; and Fort Myer, Virginia.

The commissary agency is also studying its supply chain, with the goal of reducing costs for suppliers and, ultimately, for military families. They’re working to increase commissaries’ overall in-stock rate, or the percentage of goods that are available at a given time, to 98%. Right now, the figure stands at 95%.

“95% is good, but [the difference between 95% and 98%] is … $200 million of product that’s not available to our customers on a yearly basis,” Hall said.

The commissary agency received $1.4 billion to fund operations in 2023, and returned more than $1.5 billion in savings to customers, Hall said. Because the agency gets taxpayer dollars to cover daily operating costs, such as cashiers at the 235 stores worldwide, the commissaries don’t have to pass on those expenses as part of the price customers pay for groceries.

Hall aims to increase sales to $8 billion within five years — up from $4.6 billion in fiscal year 2023 — following a steady decline in commissary sales over about a decade.

“It’s not that we want to get to $8 billion in sales,” he said. “It’s that we want to get $1.1 billion more to our customers in savings.”

Sales this fiscal year are up by about 5% over the same time period last year, and are on track to total about $5 billion this year, Hall said.

That bump is due to inflation as well as foot traffic in stores. Between October and March, there were 33.5 million transactions, or about 1.56 million more transactions than in the same period the previous year — an increase of about 5%.

Commissaries got a big boost from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in September 2022 as his “Taking Care of Our People” initiative pumped more money into the stores in order to cut the prices at the register.

By removing the 2017 Defense Department requirement that commissaries had to make a profit to offset operational costs, Austin enabled commissary officials to drop prices by 3% to 5% across more than 30,000 products in their stores. They targeted reductions in items that most or all shoppers want, like milk, eggs and bread.

Overall savings comparisons vary by region. Each is based on market basket research in a geographic area to determine how much, on average, a commissary shopper could expect to save on grocery purchases compared with local commercial grocers in that area outside the gate.

Those eligible for the commissary shopping benefit include active duty, Guard and Reserve members, military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients, and their authorized family members. Veterans with any Department of Veterans Affairs documented service-connected disability rating are also eligible for commissary shopping, as well as Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, and individuals approved and designated by the VA as the primary family caregivers of eligible veterans.

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