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Over the past month, a benefit that’s much-loved by military families and little-known among many civilians has made headlines, as the U.S. Defense Department-operated Commissary grocery stores have been thrust into the middle of a budget-cutting debate. We’ve heard from the U.S. Senator who’s proposed eliminating the commissaries’ taxpayer-funded subsidy, and vocal supporters who have decried any effort to change the system. But until now, we haven’t heard much from the Commissary itself. Now, the Defense Commissary Agency is speaking out on that subject, and others, affecting military families’ efforts to save money.

First, to the issue of Commissary funding and the future of the commissaries themselves. In November, U.S. Senate Republican Tom Coburn released a report critical of Defense Department spending, and suggested one way to save money would be by “getting the Department of Defense out of the grocery business here in the United States.” He advocated a plan to eliminate more than a billion dollars in annual funding, which currently allows U.S.-based commissaries to sell groceries at a discounted rate (read: “U.S. Military’s Grocery Stores Come Under Fire”). But military families who rely on the cost savings offered by the Commissary expressed outrage at the plan, which could result in commissaries being consolidated and in some cases, closed (read: “No, Your Commissary Is Not Closing. Not Yet, Anyway.”).

Now, the Commissary itself is weighing in on the controversy – though carefully, leaving any direct opinion on the matter to its bosses in the Pentagon. “We obviously follow all discussions involving the commissary benefit,” Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) spokesman Kevin Robinson told Coupons in the News. “As a Department of Defense activity, DeCA follows the guidelines of its higher headquarters in the Department.”

The Commissary goes a bit further in its recent annual “Commissary Report Card”, though you have to read between the lines a little. Within the report is a subtle counterargument to Sen. Coburn’s contention that the Commissary benefit is no longer needed. In highlighting sales figures for the year, the report concludes that “the value of the commissary benefit is stronger than ever, especially in its service to the military and its connection to military readiness” and vowed to continue providing service members and their families “a 21st century benefit that they’ve earned through their exemplary service and sacrifice.”

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One part of that “21st century benefit” is access to 21st century coupons. The Commissary recently completed the rollout of a loyalty card program that allows customers to load and redeem digital coupons (read: “Clipless Coupons for Troops”). Some, though, have been underwhelmed at the offerings so far. As of this writing, there are currently 21 digital coupons available on the Commissary Rewards Card site. Compare that to the nearly 200 digital coupons currently offered by Kroger, the country’s largest civilian supermarket chain.

Robinson acknowledges the disparity, but says focusing solely on the number of coupons available is deceiving. Many of the digital coupons offered by other retailers “are for categories of products we are not authorized to sell at DeCA,” he says, like “nail polish, mascara, foundation and for ‘Store Branded’ products, again not a category we have.” The coupons that are offered, though, tend to go fast. Robinson says the Commissary and its coupon provider Inmar are working to correct that. “DeCA patrons are clipping through the allotted quantities at a much faster rate than those coupons being clipped on other retailers’ sites,” he tells Coupons in the News. A coupon that might last for weeks on another retailer’s site, can disappear from the Commissary site within days. “Inmar is adjusting the number of coupons being requested through our brokers and manufacturers to hopefully correct this.”

One perk for overseas Commissary shoppers is the stores’ policy of accepting paper coupons up to six months past their expiration date. Not so for digital coupons, which the Commissary says “are available to all our customers worldwide instantly, so our overseas customers won’t need extra time to be able to use these coupons.” Addressing concerns that the Commissary could eventually move toward an all-digital system, eliminating the expiration-date perk for paper coupons, Robinson said simply, “we do not have any plans at this time to change our policy on accepting paper coupons overseas up to 6 months after the expiration date.”

That Commissary shoppers are heavy coupon users is a fact noted in the Commissary Report Card. Commissary patrons used 113 million coupons, saving more than $100 million, over the past year. The previous year, DeCA ranked sixth among U.S. retailers in the number of coupon redemptions, ahead of national retailers CVS, Meijer, Supervalu and Ahold, the parent company of Giant and Stop & Shop. That deflates part of Sen. Coburn’s argument, that Commissary shoppers could save just as much without a subsidy, if they’d just use more coupons and shop for sale items.

For now, though, there’s no sign of any action on Coburn’s recommendations. So if you’re a Commissary shopper, it’s safe to expect the stores to stick around in the year to come, with potentially improved digital coupon offerings to boot. The Commissary, Robinson concludes, “is committed to delivering an efficient and effective benefit to its patrons, and will continue to do so” – for as long as the arguments of the supporters outweigh those of the budget-cutters.

Image source: Defense Commissary Agency

2 Comments

  1. Don Roberts says:

    I have tried to use my rewards card my last 3 visits, at the Harrison Village commissary. The computer says the rewards are off-line. Is this another management failure at this commissary, or does this problem occur at other commissaries?

  2. I’m a heavy coupon user at my local commissary in Jacksonville…Now that we have been reassigned to England, much more. I do have to say that the coupon offered through the rewards cards are not that popular with me since a lot of them, so far, are for products we do not use. I wish we could link our commissary rewards card with saving star and take advantage of the technology. But, I WOULD NOT change my commissary for anything in this world…

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