Do I Have to Tip the Commissary Baggers?

 Don Magers, retired Marine, bags groceries at the Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri commissary. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Phelps.)
Don Magers, retired Marine, bags groceries at the Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri commissary. (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Daniel Phelps.)

I'm a new military spouse. The other day, I shopped at the commissary and a bagger helped me out to my car. I've been shopping at grocery stores with baggers all my life and I never gave any of them tips.

But the other day, someone told me that we have to tip the commissary baggers because they don't get paid otherwise. Do they really work for free?

Fact: You don't have to do anything you don't want to do.

Another fact: Commissary baggers really do work only for tips.

Coming from the civilian world, that probably seems strange. In fact, at many civilian grocery stores, baggers aren't allowed to receive tips at all. I've seen baggers at our local Publix wearing buttons that specifically tell you not to tip them. So what's going on with the military commissary?

Related: Commissary 101: How to Shop at the Commissary

Related: Does the Commissary Raise Prices on Payday?

All commissary employees are federal workers, paid on federal pay scales and they receive federal worker benefits -- but the commissary baggers are not. Instead, the Defense Commissary Agency lets them work in the stores for tips only. They are considered self-employed and work there under an agreement the store has made with the base commander.

You'll find that most of the baggers working during morning and early afternoon weekdays are military retirees or their spouses, and many of the baggers in the afternoons and evenings or on the weekends are military teenagers.

The baggers are coordinated and supervised by a "head bagger" at each store. Some head baggers charge a small fee of a few dollars a day to the baggers they oversee, but that varies between stores, according to commissary officials.

Some commissary stores have a prominent sign posted proclaiming "baggers work for tips only" and some do not. But not knowing to tip the bagger is a common mistake among new military spouses.  

But do you have to tip the baggers? No. The decision to tip is completely up to you. And baggers cannot demand a tip, either -- although they may give you the stink eye if you allow them to carry your groceries to your car without paying them for their service. If you are treated rudely by a commissary bagger, commissary officials say you should report the bagger to the store's manager using the person's number (which they are required to wear on a tag).

So what is a fair tip? The answer to that varies wildly. According to the research I've done through over the years, the average tip seems to settle somewhere between $3 and $5 per trip, with less if you let them bag but don't have them help you out, and more if you purchase a large amount or you are shopping around the holidays.

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