Military Advantage

Save the Commissaries But Stop Exaggerating the Savings

Philpott’s Forum presents questions, opinions and insights from readers of Tom Philpott’s Military Update news column. Today's Forum focuses on the DoD's proposals to change the Commissary program.

I am not sure who reports savings in commissaries of 30 percent but that has not been my experience in over 40 years of shopping there.

Although prices are lower than they on the outside, they do not reflect a discount anywhere close to 30 percent. With the advent of large box stores offering grocery items and large buyer clubs doing the same, that gap has closed to where pricing is nearly the same as commissaries. About the only price benefit of commissaries now is the tax savings.

Product quality in meats has fallen. Fruits and vegetables are typically very low quality and staple items are regularly out of stock.

That said, for junior enlisted living paycheck to paycheck, this is a benefit they cannot afford to lose. The same is true for retired members living on limited incomes and choosing between utilities, medicine and food.

GARY CRUMRINE Via email

I challenge the notion of commissaries providing average savings of 30 percent. Any week shopping at Wal-Mart or the HEB grocery in San Antonio would compare favorably to prices at Fort Sam Houston or Lackland Air Force Base commissaries. I have done my own study and found 30 percent savings inaccurate.

Furthermore, baggers and carryout non-employees greet you to receive tips for their service. And the gas it cost me to go to the commissary instead of my local grocer makes the trip more expensive overall. JEANNINE GATTO Via email

About a year ago I shopped at the Fort Sill commissary and was saving about eight percent on my grocery bill over prices at Wal-Mart or Target. Recently commissary prices have skyrocketed to just below Wal-Mart’s and on some items a few cents above Wal-Mart prices. I now only buy meats and dairy products on base. They are the only items on which I save money.

When I joined the Army in 1964, commissaries sold only basic items, not specialty items or top of the line names. Stores were self-sustaining and used the surcharge to pay wages of the store employees. We always had to pay extra to people who bagged groceries.

Today, when bagger tips are added to our total grocery bill, commissaries are more expensive than Wal-Mart. A two-quart cranberry juice at the commissary toward the end of the month normally costs $3.25 compared to $3.09 at Wal-Mart and $3.19 at Target.

Sales tax in town is 8.75 percent and of course, there are no sales taxes at Fort Sill. However, with the five percent surcharge and cost of having groceries bagged, it still is cheaper to shop downtown. I believe commissaries stock high-end items and that created the need for the $1.4 billion subsidy. Perhaps the solution is to return to basics and serve soldiers with basic quality food items as commissaries initially were designed. There is no need to sell coconut water for $3.75, flaunting a high-gloss brand name. DAVID DISBROW USA-Ret. Lawton, Okla.

The article mentions that folks who shop in the military commissary save as average of 30 percent compared to the civilian market. I don’t know where that number came from but I don’t think I’ve ever save 30 percent by shopping at the commissary. The most I think I’ve ever saved might be between 10 and 15 percent.

When is Congress going to stop penalizing the military community for their lack of budget skills? They could come up with more than enough money to fund the government if they would stop the pork barreling and other wasteful spending. GREG MELAND USAF Retired Via email

NEED FOR COMMISSARIES IS LONG PAST Commissaries were great when the forts were located on The Great Plains, miles from towns or other remote areas. But why does the military need them now?

The military is very well compensated. Many GIs could not do as well in civilian jobs. Other than subsidizing the military, what other expenses do taxpayers provide for government employees so they can buy lower priced products?

If the commissaries are a business rather than a benefit, then why can't I shop there and get their lower prices too? D. PORTER Via email

FIRST CUT WASTE AND ABUSE The first thing that needs to be looked at regarding commissary costs is waste. Produce sold at commissaries on Maxwell Air Force Base and the Gunter Annex is usually sub par. For example, every box of strawberries has one or two bad ones. This adds up.

I have seen workers throw out numerous produce items, such as spinach, which is often bad. No one wants wilted spinach. The quality of meat also is sub-par, particularly the pork.

The biggest boondoggle is case lot sales. I still have not figured out why commissaries have them, except to provide the opportunity to purchase enormous amounts of dry goods. What do shoppers do with this stuff? Where do they put it? I have a huge house and I could not store the amount of paper products I have seen shoppers buy.

I can only surmise the items are for resale, and the discounts on those items are paid for with my money and yours.

Finally, allowing patrons to bring extended family into commissaries is an injustice to all who use the benefit. This should be investigated before raising prices. I personally know folks who purchase goods for adult children and their families as well as for Mom and Dad who don’t live with them. While this may seem a nice gesture it is illegal. Perhaps the new ID scan can stop some of this.

Enlisted personnel who do not think the commissary is a good benefit are living in another world. Before there’s any decision to raise prices, these things should be investigated and acted on. PAT HARRIS Montgomery, Ala.

I wonder why the commissaries can't be contracted out. There is a food outlet in Alabama that charges cost plus 10 percent. They pay rent, taxes, all labor including carry out helpers. Those same type companies could probably operate on base for five percent.

Sometimes I can buy groceries cheaper than at the commissary.

Commissaries today have too much overhead, top to bottom. But so many people depend on them and they do deliver savings ELIZABETH CROUSE Via email

Please consider the cost savings from combining the Army & Air Force Exchange System with the Navy Exchange System.

They serve the same customers -- military members, retirees and their families -- but are operated under two separate and distinct branches of management.

Joint operations are occurring across the U.S. military throughout the world. Maintaining two separate management teams, providing the same non-competitive products, is a waste of tax dollars and counter productive.

Eliminate this redundancy and streamline this valuable benefit for our military men and women and use that money where it is needed most. DANIEL R. NELSON Major, retired Via email

APPRECIATE THE SAVINGS I’m sick and tired of politicians trying to take away benefits. The savings from the commissary are substantial. I would be hard pressed to go anywhere else and save 30 to 40 percent on groceries. Whenever we begin to wind down a war and are done waving flags and honoring us for defending freedom, politicians and policymakers immediately begin thinking of ways to take away earned benefits. ROBERT M. BONI Sergeant First Class, retired

PURPOSE OF SURCHARGE I was under the impression that the five percent surcharge levied on commissary purchases would be used to run the stores. Thus, no need for appropriated funding.

Can you elaborate on why we have the surcharge? RICHARD C. BENNICE Senior Chief Petty Officer, USN-Ret. Virginia Beach, Va.

The commissary surcharge is collected from patrons to pay for renovation of existing commissaries and construction of new stores. Day-to-day operations of stores, principally staff salaries, are funded with yearly appropriations [tax dollars].

– Tom Philpott

THESE AREN’T CUTS? Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposes to reduce funding to the commissary system, reduce Basic Allowance for Housing, increase TRICARE costs and cap annual pay increases for active duty personnel. He does this while saying he is not advocating pay cuts.

While he technically is accurate, he is also highly deceptive. The changes he advocates would mean a significant increase in out-of-pocket expenses for our military personnel and retirees.

The commissary cuts are an example of the philosophy “the ends justify the means.” By reducing funding to the Defense Commissary Agency while proclaiming he is not advocating closure of commissaries, he avoids the appearance of hurting the troops while doing exactly that.

As you allude in your article, a reduction of funding for the Defense Commissary Agency will require stores to be run much more like commercial grocery stores. They will have to raise surcharges and food prices to make up the difference. This would reduce savings for shopping on base as well patronage. Less patronage would mean stores that can't make a profit would close. Close them today, or in a couple of years, the result is the same: troops lose a benefit and Secretary Hagel gets the result he wants.

Less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population ever served in the military. And yet we can't afford the benefits promised for this small group? We should cut their benefits before other programs? This is the best we can do? PATRICK CARROLL Via email

Send comments to Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120, email milupdate@aol.com or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update

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Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.

Visit Tom Philpott's Military Update Archive to view his past articles.

Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.

denied-105-158Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian. His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.

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