Commissary Director Talks COVID-19 Response, Modernization, and More

Commissary Director Talks COVID-19 Response, Modernization, and More
Photo by Kevin Robinson/Defense Commissary Agency

The new director of the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) is unusually candid on the importance of delivering the commissary benefit since he grew up as an Army brat -- the son of an E-8 whose family benefited from the commissary.

 

“You save a quarter on every dollar when you shop at the commissary,” William Moore said during a spring meeting with The Military Coalition, a group of military and veterans groups (MOAA serves as a co-chair) representing a combined 5.5 million-plus membership. Moore, who was tapped in July 2020 to take over for Rear Adm. Robert Bianchi, USN (Ret), said he is proud of this purposeful work, and is dedicated to delivering the benefit and cost savings to the uniformed services community.  

 

Battling COVID-19

As lessons learned are analyzed from the COVID-19 pandemic response, the commissary has proven a bright spot, with a support structure that performed well under stress. The commissary system was quick to adopt safety, screening, and cleaning standards that provided confidence in the shopping experience.

 

DeCA’s robust supply chain and inventory process ensured goods continued to reach shelves, even when there was a shortage of essentials, like toilet paper, early in the COVID-19 epidemic. Some regions still struggled with shortages despite the robust supply chain. For those stationed overseas, when COVID measures created a shipping backlog, DeCA was able to airlift produce and frozen goods to distant commissaries where local foreign grocery stores are sparse and expensive.

 

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Some MOAA members found difficulty gaining access to military installations to use their commissary benefit last year, as some installations barred retirees temporarily to protect the health of servicemembers and their families. DeCA became an advocate for the retiree community, explaining to installation commanders the importance of delivering the benefit and of authorizing entry at the gate for commissary customers.

 

“Every patron had to earn this benefit,” Moore said, “and we should be their grocery store of choice.”

 

The commissary value proposition is not just savings but also safety. The institution is replete with military inspections and dietitians who guide inventory.

 

Bringing Back Lost Customers

Although commissary revenue was up significantly in 2020, Moore acknowledges revenue has been dwindling since 2012. He also notes that 2012 was the year that DeCA was directed to close its outreach office and would like to reintroduce a virtual patron council. Initiatives to reconnect with lost customers include embracing modern curbside pickup and delivery, and adapting to the transition in demographics where convenience and time are valued higher than cost savings. These outreach efforts may have particular value as some families have reported a loss of trust in the privatized housing partnership on base, which has influenced many families to live farther away from installations.

 

[RELATED:  Most Military Commissaries to Start Offering Curbside Pickup Service]

 

The commissary system has retained some inherent strengths with the community. With 64% of the workforce made up of  uniformed service family members or retirees, it carries a personal responsibility to deliver the benefit.

 

The FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also authorized modernization that has become popular with customers. Commissary brands such as Freedom’s Choice can provide an impressive savings compared with brand names for items such as olive oil, honey, and spring water. Moore is particularly proud the Freedom’s Choice spring water costs half as much as name brands.

 

However, not all commissary patrons agree with Moore’s assessment. MOAA has heard from some members that the quality of certain Freedom's Choice products doesn’t compare well to store brands at civilian grocery stores. Members also have voiced concerns over the sourcing of some products from China and have requested more prominent country-of-origin labeling on products.

 

Your Feedback Needed

The administration’s recent defense budget request to Congress included a commissary subsidy of over $1.1 billion, on par with support in the past. In the effort to win back customers, DeCA will seek additional funding for manning and e-commerce programs to support a delivery option.  

 

To guide these modernization efforts, it’s important DeCA receives feedback from commissary shoppers and military families. MOAA would like to know what you think about the current state of your commissary benefit:

  • What is the top customer service area where the commissary can improve?
  • What is No. 1 strength of the commissary that you would like to see protected from any changes?
  • If you do not use the commissary, what changes would encourage you to shop there again?

 

Please share your experience by sending an email to legis@moaa.org.  

 

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About the Author

Terry Waters
Terry Waters

Waters manages MOAA's Member Service Center. He earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Arizona State University. Before joining the MOAA team, he worked as a congressional intern for Rep. Don Young.