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(Dec. 6th update: Read the latest developments here: “No, Your Commissary Is Not Closing. Not Yet, Anyway.”)
(Dec. 18th update: And read even more here: “Commissary Comments on Coupons, Customers – and Closing”)

If U.S. service members want to save on their groceries, shouldn’t they just clip coupons and shop the sales like the rest of us? That’s the gist of a recent government report, that has the military using plenty of ammunition to fight back.

Today, the Military Resale and MWR Center For Research released a 114-page response to U.S. Senate Republican Tom Coburn’s recent three-page assertion that the government could save billions by no longer funding military-run commissaries. Those three pages were part of a larger report that focused on several ways the Pentagon can cut back on non-essential services to save money. “Mission creep,” Coburn’s report reads, “has essentially transformed the Department of Defense into the Department of Everything.”

The Department of Defense operates about 250 commissaries on U.S. military installations around the world. For all intents and purposes, they are military owned and operated grocery stores – complete with their own loyalty card (read: “Clipless Coupons for Troops”), and even Commissary-focused blogs like Military Wives Saving and Commissary Deals that feature Commissary deals and coupon matchups. “If the Pentagon run grocery stores were a national chain,” Coburn’s report reads, “they would easily be one of the ten largest grocery store chains in the United States.”

Unlike other grocery store chains, though, the commissaries are not for profit. They sell their groceries at cost, plus a 5% surcharge to help cover operational costs. “Commissaries constitute one of the top benefits for today’s military,” the Commissary website says, “and are an important inducement to recruitment and retention of skilled personnel.”

Nonsense, says Coburn’s report. It is unlikely, he claims, that “a grocery benefit is a determining factor in a soldier deciding whether or not to re-enlist.” Besides, he cites research that purchases by military retirees – not active members – account for more than half of all Commissary sales. While overseas commissaries allow military families to buy familiar food in foreign lands, many U.S. commissaries just don’t make sense, Coburn says. Fort Myer, for example, is located a stone’s throw from the Pentagon in Virginia, and has its own Commissary. But it’s located “less than two miles from at least three major national grocery store chains: Safeway, Costco and Giant.”

Coburn’s report suggests simply raising military pay by around $400 a year and allowing military shoppers to get their groceries somewhere else. The commissaries would not be compelled to close, he says, though eliminating their subsidy and ability to sell products at cost, could effectively cause them to. “By getting the Department of Defense out of the grocery business here in the United States, Congress could increase military pay across the board and allow military members to shop at the stores of their choice… and still save $9.1 billion over ten years.”

The Resale Research report says it’s not just about numbers: “The military resale system has traditionally been defended along compassionate and mission grounds.” Then it goes on to cite numbers: 260,000 customers visit a Commissary each day, buying more than $16.5 million worth of groceries per day – or more than $6 billion a year. The report also says $400 in extra pay is nowhere near enough to offset the loss of the commissary benefit. It reports that Commissary customers save an average of 32% – nearly $4,500 per year for a family of four – as compared to regular grocery store prices. But that conclusion, counters Coburn’s report, “appears to assume members of the military would have purchased the same items at full retail price at other commercial grocery stores, rather than comparison shop or otherwise take advantage of any type of lower prices, coupons, frequent shopper programs, or promotions.”

That’s not to say military families don’t look for deals, though. They appear to use coupons a lot more than civilians, even when you take into account that coupons are not as readily available to those serving overseas. The Resale Research report says military families redeemed coupons worth $112.7 million last year. With $6 billion in sales, that’s a coupon savings rate of nearly 2%. Overall, separate studies say, U.S. consumers redeemed $4.6 billion worth of coupons last year, against $584 billion in sales – a coupon savings rate of less than 1%, or half that of military members.

Service members consistently rate the Commissary as a “top tier benefit, following only military health care,” concludes the Resale Research report. But Coburn’s report asserts that U.S.-based commissaries are a benefit the military can no longer afford. “Grocery stores received $1.27 billion in Pentagon funding in 2012,” he says, nearly twice as much as the Army spent last year “on assault rifles, carbine rifles, sniper rifles, grenade launchers, light and heavy machine guns, and shotguns combined.”

As the old saying goes: Guns or butter? Whichever side you choose, could depend on whether you think those who serve deserve to save as well.

(Dec. 6th update: Read the latest developments here: “No, Your Commissary Is Not Closing. Not Yet, Anyway.”)
(Dec. 18th update: And read even more here: “Commissary Comments on Coupons, Customers – and Closing”)

Image source: Defense Commissary Agency


29 Comments

  1. Did anyone actually read the report, which by the way is 70+ pages, not 3. It DOES NOT propose shutting down commissaries. It wants to end the taxpayer subsidy to the commissaries, put the $$ difference towards troop pay, and not eliminate a single job. From the report: “Under this proposal the on-base grocery store would not close down, it would just lose its taxpayer subsidy, operate like the on-base retail exchanges, and soldiers could then decide where to shop with additional money in their paychecks.” (page 68) This post is incredibly misleading, at best.

    • It says in this article that the 3 page assertion is part of a larger report…first paragraph. Anyhow, the commissary around here is the cheapest grocery store around. I honestly don’t believe that the commissary benefit is a top reason to enlist/re-enlist, but I do think that it is a reasonable benefit to keep. I could not feed my family healthily using off-post groceries and still have money at the end of the pay period without the commissary…and I’m a couponer! I agree with every other poster when they say the finger should be pointed in the other directio, at those ‘running’ things in government. Taking away benefits is not the way to keep those in charge of protecting the country happy…

    • Fair point on ending the subsidy vs. shutting down the commissaries. Though many would argue that eliminating taxpayer funding for the commissaries would effectively cause them to shut down, since without a subsidy, it would be difficult or impossible for them to successfully compete with private businesses. But even though that may well be the end result of Coburn’s proposal, you’re right that he doesn’t technically advocate shutting them down outright.

      “SC” points out that the “3-page assertion” about the commissaries is part of a larger report – it’s not the report itself that’s 3 pages. But that paragraph has been amended to make that point more clear, and the subsidy vs. closure issue has been clarified as well.

      Thanks for your input and sharp eyes!

    • Here we go again. This crops up every few years,and I get a first hand look at the reports because of my association with the commissary system, and being a military wife. This is mostly balogna, and I am not eating it this time either. This is the same spew, just a different day.

  2. Pingback: So Tom Coburn Thinks Us Stateside Military Folks Don’t Need Commissaries Eh? | Army Wife 101

  3. Why is there no mention of all of the people that wouldn’t have a job if it weren’t for the commissaries? I realize that the baggers work for tips only, but it’s money, isn’t it? What about the people running and stocking the commissaries? Yes it might save money to get rid of building/updating commissaries stateside, but they better want to stick more in our pockets than $400 a year! Try $400 added to my BAS a month and we’ll talk…

  4. OR we could cut all of the congressmen and senators pay in half and save the same amount of money over the same course of time. They can survive on MUCH less! Soldiers need benefits like these. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but soldiers work longer hours than our congressmen/senators and get to spend less time with their families than them as well. Perhaps it’s time to pay our soldiers better and stop wasting time and money on stupid research that cutting these programs for us could save our government money. I can save our government money by stopping needless research like this and paying stupid senators less!!

    • Cut congressmen and senators pay and insert military
      pay scale. Same benefits as active duty troops. Why should they retire at FULL pay?

      • I second that inlisted!! Why not pay them per diem and maybe they would work faster to fix the mess our country is in.

      • I third this idea. and lets get rid of their silver lining benefits and life time of pay while we are at it.

      • Please Explain says:

        The military is having to tighten its belt because of the sequestration now, with commissary benefits being threatened too, but Egypt is getting $250,000,000 in aid? What is going on in America? Was this all part of the plan?

  5. We live on White Sands Missile Range and the commissary is a MUST to live here on base since the nearest town is 25 miles away. Sen. Coburn needs to stop picking on the military. If we did not have the military he would not have the freedom to have his job much less say anything that points out what he thinks are issues with the government. Why not look at many other ways for the government to be fiscally responsible like cut the pay of government officials that push paper and argue about nonessiential issues like government grocery stores. P.S. If we did not have government food supplier than all of our soldiers that eat on deployments, training and at “chow halls” would be served food that was purchased from a private supplier and the cost to the government would be higher.

  6. We save a tremendous amount at the commissary. My husband retired a few years ago, the commissary is one of the reasons we stayed in Clarksville, TN.
    I remember when the GOP cared about the troops and military retiress. What happened?

  7. If Senator Coburn honestly believes that adding $400 a year to a soldiers pay will compensate for the difference in a year’s worth of the difference in the price of groceries at the commissary versus the local grocery store he has obviously never tried to feed a family of 5 on a soldier’s pay. Soldiers do not make $100,000 a year like senators do. Many of them are on government subsistance programs like WIC and food stamps. I think the senator needs a dose of reality. I am really sick and tired of hearing our government officials talk of taking things away from the little people when they never talk of taking things away from themselves. They should be required to walk a day in our shoes first!

  8. I am sorry Sen. Coburn but closing the stateside commissaries is not going to fix the economic problem that the lack of leadership in the government has caused. If you start cutting back on the simple things that are offered to military personnel and their families I GUARANTEE you they will start cutting back on other things as well in the years to come! If you want men and women to CONTINUE TO VOLUNTARILY sign up to serve our country and fight for the freedoms that we have and the ones you are exercising every day you may want to think twice about cutting back on those so called “perks” to the military. People will not want to sign up for the military if you continue to cut back on things for them and then our nation will be worse off than it really is. How about cutting back on all of the fraud and throwing money at people who are the “lumps on a log” for our country and continue to get a free hand out from the government. You may find more money there than closing a few commissaries.

  9. stateside commissaries are too expensive? Where the heck are you shopping?! It’s just the two of us; my husband is retired, I work full time and if we had to shop on the economy, even using coupons, I dont know how we would do it. The fresh meat savings alone is worth the price we pay in gas to get there. Republicans need to cut their salaries and get their laws off my body. And away from my hard earned money. And my husband’s hard earned benefits.

  10. They should get rid of the state side commissaries. We just came back from overseas & it was nice to be able to buy American food in Germany. Since we’ve been back though, we never shop at the commissary, it’s too expensive! We save more money by going to walmart or aldi. Whatever money you “save” from not paying taxes is in the product price, they up the prices around payday too, it’s a rip off.

    • Heather … the Commissary is cheaper than Walmart by $.50 – $1 on nearly everything … I can understand Aldi, however, in some cases. Please read this article about the Commissary prices changes as you state it’s a “rip off” ….. http://www.commissaries.com/documents/contact_deca/faqs/prices_commissary.cfm

    • Yes Heather, I have noticed that they do raise prices around payday. I just mentioned that to my husband the other day. Also, meat is cheaper at Sam’s Club than the commissary. We do comparison shop and sometimes Wal-mart can be cheaper and if Publix is having a buy one get one free sale then it’s cheaper to get those items there. Plus the commissary has the surcharge, Florida has no sales tax on food so that surcharge does make a difference in the total food bill in Florida. I’m not saying to close commissaries. I’m just wondering why the food prices go up on payday when everything is suppose to be at cost. Did the cost suddenly change when payday came around?

      • This is a common misconception! They DO NOT raise prices around payday. The commissary rotates their sales twice a month, something most stores do every single Sunday. So lets say around the first some items go off promotion taking the price up to normal…and others go on promotion taking them down. Which may seem to some like they are raising the price….hey wasn’t that 1.99 last week and not 2.50? Yes, because it was on promotion. But in the next aisle…this item is now 1.99 instead of 2.50. It’s not a rip off at all it’s a promotional price worked out by suppliers months in advance. I am couponer and strict commissary shopper. I have cut my bill from 250 to 80 dollars each pay period, by shopping sales, using coupons and stocking up!

        • Toni is right. Their promotions run the same schedule as paydays. If you look at the sales flyers at the commissary pay attention to the dates. I drive 35-40 min to my nearest commissary. Milk alone is $1 cheaper then even at Walmart, peanut butter is about $1.50 cheaper, and I’ve seen some things even $2 cheaper then at Walmart. I do still shop the loss leaders at other stores, but for main staples the commissary is my go to place. We wouldn’t be able to afford groceries for our family of 7 if it wasn’t for our commissary privileges.

    • I agree! At least at Travis AFB, the commisary is way more expensive than Winco! I never shop at the commissary unless I really have no other option. And they claim to be selling it at just above cost, I don’t believe that for one second! (same for the BX!)

    • Oh are you ever wrong. Remember Aldi is a German company and is only in a few states, not all across the country. All you need to do is compare prices and the commissary wins.

  11. Whenever budget cuts are mentioned, why is it that the military is always under fire? Getting rid of Commissaries???!!???!! How about just ending the billion dollar war in a country we have no business being in (should have been done YEARS ago anyway)!?! We are NOT the world’s police!

    • Yeah and how about we stop subsidizing the countries who hate our guts, like Muslim Brotherhood run Egypt?

  12. I’m pretty sure if you risk being sent overseas and never returning to your family you deserve to save a dollar on corn flakes. That’s just my opinion.

  13. Trust me, Sen. Coburn, there are many other areas of waste, fraud, and abuse in the military that should be addressed to make cuts within the military budget before you hit the commissary. My husband just retired after 21 years in the AF with 17 of those years being spent overseas. Not only did the commissary allow us to purchase familiar products in a foreign land(s), it provided popular items from all the areas the US has bases and provides them at a reasonable cost. The overseas commissaries accept coupons up to 6 months past their Stateside expiration date. That is a huge blessing. After retiring, I have seen what a huge savings shopping the commissary is. Plus it is such a morale boost. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

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