Attack on Commissary benefits ‘badly off course’ 

1/7/2013 

 

Recently, the Military Times wrote an editorial calling for a dramatic cut of commissaries throughout CONUS. Below is an op-ed piece by the Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits responding to their editorial. The attack on the commissary benefit is just beginning. We will see much more of it next year. We all need to respond to the attacks. This piece gives you information that should help you when you hear future attacks.

  The Coalition to Save our Military Shopping Benefits

Compass Without a Bearing

 

I always enjoy the Times editorials for their thought provoking approach to issues. I never find them too far from the heartbeat of current discussions and for the most part guided by a compass honed by accurate information…until your recent editorial, “Excess commissaries in the market for a cut” and I realize that your usually reliable compass has for once steered you badly off course. 

First, if you are going to use historical facts to form the foundation of an argument, you should do a better job of researching the issue in order to get them right. Your premise is that “the commissary system was created in the 19th century to serve troops at remote outposts with no nearby commercial stores.” There is a published and easily accessible reference document on the subject “The Illustrated History of the American Military Commissaries.”  The commissary benefit is not a recent innovation. The modern era of sales commissaries actually began in 1867, when enlisted men received the same at-cost purchasing privileges officers had already enjoyed for four decades. No geographic restrictions were placed upon these sales; the commissary warehouse at every Army post could become a sales location, whether they were located on the frontier or near a large city.

Second, there are no excess commissaries. Excess commissaries have been closed. In fact, 170 have been closed since 1991 leaving 248 stores to serve these patrons.

Of course we are not saying that commissaries shouldn’t tighten their belts just like everyone else in DoD must do these days. They have. Annual costs have been reduced by $700 million from where they would have been without store closures and efficiencies. This does not include $500 million that was saved when inventory was outsourced in 1996.

What about the fact that commissary shoppers have contributed nearly $6 billion over the past 20 years to their own facilities? Not only did shoppers build the stores, they lost this investment as a result of strategic decisions such as the drawdown in Europe. Then, they paid again when they had to pay to build stores stateside to accommodate the troops coming home. 

Let’s take a look at the shopper demographics. Yes, 51 percent of commissary users are retired. Most retirees are married and live on fixed incomes. Many retirees located near military bases because of commissary and exchange benefits, benefits they earned through their 20 plus years of service. Your echoing the Congressional Budget Office concept to disenfranchise entire groups of beneficiaries is a dangerous path to embark upon. The retirees were once the active force, they are a critical part of the makeup of the military community. The active force watches very closely how their retired brethren are treated when they make their decisions to stay or leave the service.

Using the survey information to make your case on the percentages of shoppers that use the commissary benefit is not a complete picture. The store survey consists of 25,000 respondents.  It would have been better to go to the source data repository for authorized benefits and use the Defense Data Manpower Center (DMDC) which provides independent assessments through their surveys of active duty, reserve, and retired personnel. As an example, DMDC's Active Duty Survey indicates that 90 percent of active duty or family members have used the commissary in the past 12 months, and 82 percent were satisfied or very satisfied with their commissary.

Authorized commissary shoppers total, 12,278,534. Active duty and family members make up 3,574,165 or 29%. Retirees and family members are 5,068729 or 41%. National Guard and Reserve and their family members are 2,885,833 or 23%. Other authorized commissary shoppers include disabled veterans, surviving spouses, Medal of Honor recipients, and civilians overseas to the tune of 749,141 or 6%...the remaining 1% is in rounding. So, if it seems strange that there is a higher number of retirees shopping than active duty, it is a math issue not an authorized shopper issue.

Then there’s the reality of the supply chain economics. Big stores support small stores and stores in high-density metropolitan areas support small stores and overseas. It’s just simple economics -volume creates economies of scale. It would also be naïve to think that commercial grocers wouldn’t cherry pick the plums and leave the marginal operations to fend for themselves. 

Also, I call your attention to an article in your own newspaper that shows that redemption of food stamps in the military has tripled since 2007. Joyce Raezer, Executive Director of the National Military Family Association said that National Guard and Reserve members returning from mobilization may find their jobs gone, or retirees may have trouble finding jobs after leaving the service. You conveniently left these populations out of your equation.

You suggest we should use the “food desert” criteria of the Agriculture Department to decide where to put commissaries. USDA study uses census tracts as its geographic units. It defines a food desert as “a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store.” Does this really fit the United States Military?

Finally, the commissary benefit should remain intact based on the fact that our military service members have earned it. It provides a valuable form of non-pay compensation. We should not cut benefits for our military service members and their families, especially after more than a decade of war. Unfortunately, some have chosen to ignore these reasons for this benefit and instead focus on what it costs. Indeed, dollars and cents are the only arguments that resonate in some sectors. That’s why we were compelled to produce an exhaustive economic analysis of commissary and exchange benefits. Take a look at some impactful numbers from the recently released study, “The Costs and Benefits of the Defense Retail System.”  The report is available in its entirety at www.resaleresearch.org.

The modern commissary system reflects exactly the purpose for which it was intended. It is a model of efficiency and return on investment to the taxpayer. It represents the model of fiscal responsibility that is sought after by the Department of Defense but not yet attained. It is part of a military resale system that is a powerful economic engine for the nation, and one that must be preserved. If your readers want to know more about their benefits and see the entire economic analysis, I invite them to visitwww.saveourbenefit.org.

Sincerely,

Candace Wheeler
Vice President of Strategic Communications & Marketing
The Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits

The Coalition to Save Our Military Shopping Benefits Valued Associates
American Logistics Association (ALA)
Armed Forces Marketing Council (AFMC)
National Industries For The Blind (NIB)
Fleet Reserve Association (FRA)
National Military Family Association (NMFA)
Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) 
The Retired Enlisted Association (TREA)
Association of the US Army (AUSA)