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Something's brewing at the commissary

House proposes pilot program for beer, wine sales

Jun. 3, 2008 - 04:41PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 3, 2008 - 04:41PM  |  
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House lawmakers want defense officials to study the pros and cons of selling beer and wine in commissaries, and possibly do a limited pilot test in the stores.

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House lawmakers want defense officials to study the pros and cons of selling beer and wine in commissaries, and possibly do a limited pilot test in the stores.

Under a provision passed by the House, defense officials would be required to conduct a study evaluating the "propriety, patron convenience and financial utility" of allowing beer and wine to be sold in commissaries.

By current law, beer and wine is sold only in stores operated by the exchange services.

The provision also would allow a pilot program to test the concept of selling beer and wine, at a minimum of 10 locations. The test would run for at least four months but no longer than one year.

Although this proposal has passed the House and is included in its version of the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill, it would also have to pass muster with the Senate before becoming part of the final compromise bill later this year.

While the study would be ordered by Congress, David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said the exchange resale board would decide whether the Defense Department should perform a test of the concept.

Chu spoke May 21 in Richmond, Va., at a commissary conference of the American Logistics Association, a trade group of vendors who sell items to commissaries, exchanges, and morale, welfare and recreation activities. The exchange resale board helps defense officials address matters of mutual interest to the exchanges and commissaries, Chu said.

Patrick Nixon, president of the American Logistics Association, supported the idea of selling beer and wine in commissaries when he was director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

It would have to be done in a way that benefits customers, commissaries and exchanges, said Nixon, who left DeCA in October.

"The largest outlet for wine in the retail environment is supermarkets," Nixon said, adding that defense officials must take care that any test that is done "accurately reflects what's happening in the marketplace," he said.

"Many times, wine is an impulse item," Nixon said.

For commissaries, beer and wine would not have to take up an entire section of a store, as is the case in many large off-base supermarkets.

"Maybe just a couple of items ... sold at exchange prices so the dividends are there, for the convenience for the customer," he said.

Military exchange officials traditionally have opposed selling beer and wine in the commissaries, concerned about the effects on exchange sales — and in turn, the dividends that exchange profits provide to morale, welfare and recreation programs.

"It's going to be an emotional issue," Nixon acknowledged.

But he said he expects defense officials to bring together representatives from commissaries, exchanges and MWR communities to discuss "what the opportunities are to improve service to patrons, continue to provide savings in the commissary benefit, and enhance the exchange dividends."

"Any program they put together is going to have to do this," he said.

The issue of selling beer and wine in commissaries has been considered by lawmakers for years. In the 1999 Defense Authorization Act, lawmakers required defense officials to survey eligible patrons but killed a proposal to conduct a test of selling beer and wine in six commissaries.

In a November 1999 survey, eligible shoppers ranked beer, wine and tobacco in the "lowest quadrant" when asked what goods and services would most attract them to shop at commissaries.

Of those surveyed in 1999, 29 percent considered it "very" or "somewhat" important to be able to buy wine in a supermarket; 28 percent said the same about beer.

But more people said they would likely buy alcohol if it were sold in commissaries: 39 percent for wine and 37 percent for beer.

The survey was mailed to about 18,000 active-duty members, reservists and retirees; about 6,670 surveys were completed and returned.

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