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Why should I shop at the commissary?

It seems a lot of people avoid the commissaries for any number of reasons or are in support of them for the "lower enlisted." Personally, I think commissaries are full of savings that benefit all ranks, especially our family of five (soon to be six). I also think that shopping at the commissary and thus supporting it with my dollars is a way to ensure continued commissary benefits both for my family and for other military families, especially the OCONUS locations where the commissary benefits are crucial. Some of the complaints against the commissary, I believe, are made without an understanding as to how the commissary operates and is funded. I hope this blog post sheds some light on why you should shop at the commissary and how to get around the somewhat inconvenient aspects of commissary shopping, such as limited hours and tipping.

Commissaries are a non-profit organization ran by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA). From the DeCA website:
Although commissaries collectively realize sales of about $5 billion per year, there is no profit generated on these sales. By law, commissaries are required to sell goods at prices that are set at a level to recover the cost of goods, with no profit built into these prices. There are also very stringent legal controls on the ways that DeCA can use taxpayer monies that Congress provides to operate commissaries.
Commissaries run on appropriated funding, meaning tax payers support the commissaries and funding is regularly voted on. Remember during the sequester when all the commissaries shutdown? This was due to the fact that commissaries operate on appropriated funding (read my blog post, "Government shutdown," and's 2013 article, "Commissary Cuts Remain Likely"), unlike exchanges which operate on non-appropriated funding. The prices at the commissary also reflect a 5% surcharge on each purchase. Question and answer on the DeCA webpage, "why does DeCA make me pay a surcharge on my commissary purchase?"
Surcharge is applied to the total value of each commissary purchase because the Congress has mandated collection of surcharge (currently 5 percent) to pay for commissary construction, equipment and maintenance. All surcharge dollars collected are returned to commissary patrons in the form of continually improved commissary facilities. The amount of surcharge applied to a commissary sale transaction is shown as "SCG" on your sales receipt.
What exactly does this surcharge pay for? From the DeCA Working Capital Fund Fiscal Year 2000/2001 Biennial Budget Estimates Operating Budget, page 2:
Surcharge Collections represents a third major source for funding commissary operations. Surcharge Collections is a trust fund primarily funded by a five percent surcharge applied to patron sales at the check-out counter. This fund was established so authorized patrons share responsibility for overall costs of commissary operations, including commissary supplies, equipment, utilities at CONUS locations, information management equipment and support, and commissary construction program. This fund also receives revenue from prompt payment discounts, the sale of used cardboard and equipment, and services provided to others.
Page 3 of the same report outlines the differences between CONUS and OCONUS commissary locations and the absolute importance of OCONUS locations to military families:
OCONUS and remote locations cost more per dollar of sales than CONUS locations, using about 45 percent of available appropriated fund support to produce 22 percent of sales. These commissaries are more expensive because operating and support costs in foreign and remote locations are higher. Many locations service small-to-medium military populations with smaller sales and higher fixed costs. Additionally, there are significant support costs incurred in providing U.S. food products and household items to overseas locations, e.g., transportation of $156 million in FY 2000.
...In spite of these cost considerations, commissary operations overseas are efficient and effective because DeCA’s infrastructure provides economies that are not achievable by other alternatives. The commissary system is also instrumental in reducing cost of living allowances (COLA) overseas by providing low-cost groceries.
The commissary system is critical in supporting military members and their families overseas. This military population does not have adequate alternative shopping available. OCONUS commissaries are more than a place for acquiring groceries. They are an essential "life-line" of the overseas military community and their quality of life.
The general rule of thumb is that shopping at the commissary will save you on average 30% than what you would pay at an average grocery store. The commissary also is very coupon friendly. Overseas commissaries even accept manufacturer coupons 6 months past their expiration date. For the complete coupon policy at the commissary, check out this link: "Coupon Use in Commissaries." One difference between couponing at the commissary and couponing at an average grocery store is that commissaries do not have loss leaders (check out the Crazy Coupon Lady's post "What's a Loss Leader and How Do I Find One at my Supermarket?"). The DeCA website explains why the commissary does not offer loss leaders: "Because commissaries are required by law to sell items at cost-- neither higher nor lower– we can't offer 'loss leaders.'" The commissary also changes its flier on a different schedule than average grocery stores, according to their website:
Stateside commissaries change prices twice a month, as opposed to the private sector, where prices are changed weekly or more frequently. Commissary prices are changed on the 1st and 16th of each month and are usually in effect for 30 to 45 days. These price changes are generally about a 50-50 mix, with some prices being lowered as items go on a special promotion or sale and some raised as items come off a special promotion or sale. 
 Even without loss leaders, the commissary website claims:
However, although you may find selected items at lower prices in commercial stores, our price surveys provide convincing evidence that-if you shop regularly in a commissary for all or virtually all of your grocery needs--you will save 30 percent or more on your grocery bill versus what you would pay in a commercial store for the same array of items.
The National Military Association's article, "Protecting Our Commissary Savings," states:
A military family of four saves $4,500 a year when regularly using the commissary. Multiply that average savings by the number of military families who use the commissary and you see how effectively and efficiently the $1.4 billion [appropriated funding] is used.
In the USMilitary "What the Recruiter Never Told You" Part 13 Military Commissaries and Exchanges article by Rod Powers, he compares commissary prices with WalMart Super Store prices:
In preparation for this article, I visited a local Wal Mart "Super Store," and bought $103.57 worth of groceries. I then made a list of the items I bought and traveled to Patrick AFB... At the commissary there, I priced the exact same items. According to DeCA, my commissary bill should have been around $70.00. Had I actually purchased the items, my bill would have been $85.52. Tack on the 5 percent surcharge, and it would have been $89.79. I won't count the bagger's tip, as Commissary baggers not only bag your groceries but take them outside and load them into your car. That's worth every penny of the tip, in my opinion. My total discount would have been 13.3 percent.
Tipping at the commissary is subjective. I typically do not carry cash. However, when checking out at the commissary, I can request specific dollar amounts of cash back when paying with my debit card. The last time I went to the commissary I requested $10 cash back in the form of one $5 and five $1. The baggers at the commissary work entirely off of tips and are not government or commissary employees. I generally put $1-$2 in the jar if I do not have the baggers take my groceries to the car and about $5 for a normal grocery load if they do. $2-$5 is generally considered acceptable when tipping at the commissary. Often times I tip more over holidays or when I have an exceptionally large or cumbersome load. Using the self-checkout at the commissary does not require tipping.
According to the DeCA Working Capital Fund Fiscal Year 2000/2001 Biennial Budget Estimates Operating Budget, page 3, "Commissary operating hours and days are determined by sales, patron demographics, and local installation needs. Due to funding limitations, commissaries are open an average of 48 hours a week." The same report estimates on page 22 that an average grocery store is open roughly 117 hours a week, just to compare the differences between commissary hours and average grocery store hours. While the commissary often has limited hours, they generally open their doors a half hour before the cash registers are open. This is very convenient for me when shopping with the kids. I can do my shopping when the commissary is still relatively empty and get to the cash registers right when they open, making for a speedy check out. Even so, the limited shopping hours are often inconvenient for my family. The commissary opens later than most other area grocery stores. On weekends when we are making big pancake breakfasts and run out of an ingredient, it is often before the commissary is open. Or when my hubby calls on his way home from school and I want him to swing by the commissary for something, it is often when the commissary is closing or right before, forcing him to use a different grocery store. And just like the Chick-Fil-A law (anyone else only crave Chick-Fil-A on Sundays?), we inevitably need something from the commissary on the day it is closed.
The previous quote from the DeCA Working Capital Fund Fiscal Year 2000/2001 Biennial Budget Estimates Operating Budget
brings up a very valid point: "Commissary operating hours and days are determined by sales, patron demographics, and local installation needs." This is where the responsibility falls on us, the commissary shoppers. If we aren't shopping at our local commissaries, the hours will continue to get cut and commissaries will continue to close. While the commissary is not the vital lifeline for us here in South Carolina as it was for us in Hawaii, shopping at CONUS locations helps keeps OCONUS locations afloat, balancing out the commissaries non-profit budget. How important are these commissary locations to military families? This article on Hawaii News Now, "Milk Prices in Hawaii Go Up" by Beth Hillyer, outlines the prices of milk in Hawaii, "The highest price we found on Oahu for a gallon of whole milk was $8.99 on sale for $7.49 if you have a value card. The cheapest was Costco for $4.99 per gallon." This article obviously doesn't include commissary prices on milk, but you can see how shopping at an average grocery store in Hawaii for the basics starts adding up!

So where do I stand on commissary prices? Do I think that they are always much less than shopping out in town? Here in South Carolina, no. For the bulk of our family shopping, we go to Costco (read my post, "Family diet verses family budget"). In general, Costco has lower prices on more of the staples of our family grocery list than my local commissary. Do I think the commissary in general has lower prices than an average grocery store here in South Carolina? Yes, especially when loss leaders are not on our list and we are just getting those in-between Costco trips items or small portions of things we couldn't buy at Costco (fresh herbs, for instance). Do I think that dealing with the "hassle" of the commissary is worth supporting this service to military families? Absolutely.
Here are a list of common complaints against the commissary-- many of which are my own complaints when compared to an average grocery store-- and how I deal with them to continue to support this service:

1. They do not offer online grocery shopping.
I love online grocery shopping, as I've mentioned in several previous blog posts. Where we live in South Carolina, there are no local grocery stores convenient that offer online grocery shopping, so this really isn't much of an issue for me. If I had to choose between shopping at the commissary or placing an order online with Harris Teeter... I think it would be a much harder choice for me. As is, I have the choice to either go in to a local grocery store or to go into our commissary. I usually choose the commissary, unless it is closed or pay day.
2. Their check out system is ridiculous.
Well, I agree. I do not like the big ole' one line system. My friends without kids tell me it moves fast. Standing in that one line with all three of my kids is about as much fun as taking the boys with me to the clinic on base (which I also do). Since our boys are so young (5-years old and 3-years old), I solve this by going early in the day, arriving when they open the door, about half hour before the registers open. I've even taken them all on pay day-- totally unintentionally. I get our shopping done and am either the first or second person in line. When I only have one or two items I need, arriving early works great too because I can be first in line for self-check out and we really are in and out.
3. You have to tip the baggers.
Maybe I'm frivolous, but this doesn't really bother me. I never have cash, so I'm always glad I can request cash back when I check out. I generally don't like the baggers coming out to the car with me. The mini van is impossible to load groceries in with the stroller in the back and our toddlers are always a hot mess to load up. Most of the time, I have them load my groceries back into my shopping cart and put a tip in their jar. The $1-$5 doesn't feel like a big deal and the times I take my hubby's car without the kids, I like having my groceries loaded up for me.

4. The commissary is so... dark.
Yeah, it isn't bright and fancy like Harris Teeter or Whole Foods. But neither is Costco. It may not have the upscale look, but it does the job. This is our fourth duty station; we've shopped at all different types of grocery stores across the country. The commissary just really doesn't bother me.

And here are some links to help with your commissary shopping:
The blog "Commissary Deals" teaches you not only how to coupon at the commissary, but tips you off to current deals! Learn the commissary's coupon policy, how to navigate commissary sales, and how to make the most of case lot sales. New to couponing? Check out the Getting Started: Learn to Coupon tab. This website is seriously a treasure trove of useful links (check out the Categories and Topics menu on the right hand side of the page!).
Note: I've mentioned it before, but I am not a couponer. I know many people coupon which is why I provided the links for couponing at the commissary. I save money when doing our family grocery shopping by sticking to our list and minimizing our trips to the store. :)


Chelsea Phelps said…
Very interesting! We live on base, so shopping at the commissary is super convenient. The baggers are always so friendly too!


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