Commissary officials are hoping a new online ordering and curbside pick-up pilot program can help them increase sales and attract more ‘wired' shoppers.
"Given the average age of our military member is 28 and military members are technically savvy, (the commissary) could expect to achieve results equal to industry averages if not more. For commissaries, the market is definitely there for potential sales and increased accessibility for our patrons," said Rick Brink, a commissary spokesman. "The (grocery) industry projects online grocery sales could reach as high as 10 percent of overall grocery sales by 2017."
The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) July 10 launched the online ordering program at their Fort Lee, Va. store. Two other bases -- Offutt Air Force Base, Neb. and Travis Air Force Base, Calif. -- will get the service by late September.
DeCA is hoping the pilot program can test whether or not they can add online shopping without impacting in-store service levels. They'll also be watching sales numbers and evaluating whether or not the online service is worth the cost and personnel to run it.
"We plan to operate the test for a year, evaluate the return on investment and then make a decision on the role eCommerce will play for DeCA," Brink said. The commissary has been involved in the ongoing battle to cut costs across the Defense Department, with some lawmakers suggesting eliminating the benefit completely. Most recently, Defense officials ordered DeCA to review and report back on options for cutting by one-third its annual $1.4 billion operating budget. That review is due this month.
For the time being the curbside program is free for customers and doesn't require a minimum order. Brink said if they decide to spread it to other stores at the end of the year, DeCA will look at including a fee "based on market rates for similar services."
Some civilian grocery store chains that offer curbside pick-up, such as Harris Teeter and Giant Eagle, charge $4.95 per order. Publix, which canceled its curbside pilot program after two years, charged $7.99.
The curbside program is operated by commissary employees who gather the items for customers, hold them for pick-up, and then deliver them to the vehicles. Because the work is done by employees, not baggers, no cash tips are accepted. While coupons are allowed curbside, customers can only by credit card, debit cards that run as credit cards or DeCA gift cards.
To order groceries customers must log into the commissary's "Curbside2Go" portal via DeCA's website using their last name, birth date and last four digits of their social security number. They can then select their items -- most of which are listed with a price and a photo -- and reserve a pick-up time. Since the website is not linked to the store's exact inventory, the costumer can choose whether or not to allow product substitutes if the item they want is not available.
To pick-up groceries at the Fort Lee locations, shoppers pull into designated parking spots and communicate with a commissary employee via intercom. Their groceries are then brought outside and loaded into the car.
While DeCA officials said almost 21,000 items are available via Fort Lee's online shopping, there are some glaring absences. For example, while ground beef and several steak cuts are available online from Fort Lee commissary's butcher department, most cuts of chicken, such as breast or thighs, are not.
Brink said the goal is find a balance between the most popular products and redundancy.
"A limited assortment of meat, delicatessen, bakery and seafood items are available based on how these products are priced at time of production," he said. "Selection of these categories was based on the concept of making available the very best assortment by offering the brand leaders of the categories with minimum redundancy."
Shoppers at Fort Lee who used the program over its first several days of operation said they were happy with the service.
"It was awesome," said Raven Green, a Fort Lee spouse who is changing duty stations in a few weeks. "I'll miss it when I move."
Green ordered about $50 worth of groceries, including ground beef and bananas. She while the meat wasn't the kind she usually choose when she shops for herself, the produce was in great condition.
Fort Lee spouse Nina Koniniak said commissary officials told her she was the first shopper to place an order after the program launched. She ordered 22 items, including produce, and was very happy with the service. While the minimum time between ordering and pick-up is usually four hours, officials let her get hers early because no other orders had been placed.
"I put my order in at the airport, grabbed lunch and less than 2 hours later had my ingredients for lasagna tonight as well as berries, fruits and dog snacks," she said.
Koniniak said she particularly liked the online platform.
"The commissary website is really easy to use. I absolutely love the service," she said. "And bonus that I can save the shopping list for the hubby."