Commissary officials are lowering prices on popular items, keeping some stores open longer and attacking the problem of poorly stocked shelves as part of an all-out effort to bring military customers back into their stores for their discounted shopping benefit.
They’re looking to regain their customers’ trust as they try to turn around a 20 percent decline in sales over the last five years, said Robert Bianchi, interim director of the Defense Commissary Agency.
One change customers will notice right away: Bright orange “YES!” labels and signs that highlight reduced prices on about 100 types of items frequently bought by commissary shoppers. With different brands and sizes covered, that means deals on about 500 items such as baby food, pet food, bottled water, toilet tissue, nutritional shakes, potato chips and other snacks, flavored ice teas, pasta, macaroni and cheese, Spam, yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, apple juice, coffee, energy drinks, soup, bananas, oranges, tomatoes, paper towels, dish soap and fabric softener.
YES, short for Your Everyday Savings, “hopefully ... will tamp down some of that perception [commissary customers] may have about some of our pricing,” Bianchi said.
Over the last year, commissary officials have been implementing a new pricing program that allows them to mark items up or down rather than sell them at cost (plus a 5 percent surcharge for overhead), as they did for decades. Some defense officials have sought for years to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars that go to commissary operations ― about $1.3 billion a year ― to provide the commissary benefit of discounted groceries.
By law, the variable pricing can help defray those dollars as long as the system maintains an overall level of savings of 23.7 percent when compared with civilian grocers. That means officials can cut prices on YES items to compete with stores outside the gate, potentially bringing in customers who might otherwise head elsewhere.
Bianchi gave the example of customers who see individual items such as bananas priced higher in a commissary than a civilian store. That leaves the customer with an impression that the rest of the commissary prices are just as high, even though shopping there should, on average, save them 23.7 percent (depending on what’s in their cart).
In customer surveys, many of the commissaries’ lower ratings center around pricing, product availability and customer service, Bianchi said. He’s attacking those issues in his interim capacity while maintaining his post as CEO of Navy Exchange Service Command.
Among other efforts:
- Expanded hours: Stores at Twentynine Palms, California; McConnell Air Force Base, Kansas; and Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, will be open more hours as a result of feedback from installation commanders, Bianchi said.
- Stocked shelves. Low inventory has been a common complaint, Bianchi said. For a test that started May 15, Navy Exchange employees have been hired to stock shelves at the Little Creek commissary at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, Virginia. If successful, it may expand to other stores.
- Inventory changes: Plans call for an expanded selection of natural and organic items, and officials are considering offering more meal kits and prepared-food options for shopper convenience. There’s also another 100 private-label commissary-brand products on the way; the 500 items available now under the year-old program have accounted for $40 million in sales, Bianchi said.
- Exchange cross-promotions: In one recent example, shoppers who spent $25 at the commissary could get a $5 Navy exchange coupon. The commissaries plan to sell exchange gift cards, and 43 Navy exchange locations just started selling commissary gift cards, with more exchanges to follow.
- Click2Go: Plans call for an expansion this summer of the commissary’s online ordering program with curbside pickup.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.