Military extending reach of commissaries

On a weekend in early April, Staff Sgt. Ingrid Rice drove to her North Carolina Air National Guard facility and bought $250 worth of groceries at commissary discount prices.

After filling one shopping cart and checking out, Rice, a mother of two, returned and shopped again. She estimates that she saved at least $100.

The hook of the story is that her Guard facility has no commissary. The nearest one is more than an hour away at Fort Jackson, S.C., and, given the distance, Rice said she never shops there.

But this month, the commissary came to Rice — and to a few thousand other reserve component members and military retirees in the Charlotte area. The commissary benefit, with prices that, on average, save 30 percent over a commercial grocer, arrived via a four-day “case lot” sale held outside the same facility where Rice’s unit trains.

Twenty-four truckloads of grocery products, including meats, fish, fresh produce, dishwasher detergent and diapers, began arriving on a Tuesday. By Thursday, a team of commissary employees from Fort Bragg, working with vendors and Guard unit leaders, had opened a makeshift store, mostly under tents, with eight portable checkout registers.

By Sunday, nearly 2,300 patrons had pushed through long lines to buy $250,000 in discounted goods.

“I don’t know anyone who didn’t go back twice,” said Rice.

Do such on-site sales boost morale? “Absolutely,” Rice said.

That’s the goal, said Richard Page, acting director of Defense Commissary Agency. Since November 2003, drilling Reserve and National Guard members have been authorized unlimited shopping on base. But two thirds of Guard members and almost half of drilling reservists live too far away to enjoy the benefit. That hurdle has to be overcome, said Page, in light of the sacrifices that reserve component members are making today with frequent deployments to fight overseas and to secure the homeland.

He is committed to bringing the benefit to reserve members whenever possible. The effort now is modest, involving sales of 150 to 400 popular items at about 100 Guard facilities and reserve centers this year. These “case-lot” or bulk sales events are getting larger, more frequent and more festive, Page said. By 2010, the number could reach 400 sites.

A current schedule of “on-site sales” can be found online at:

The commissary agency has more ambitious plans to help reserve component members and their families. This summer, for three on-site sales at Homestead, Fla., Knoxville, Tenn., and San Luis Obispo, Calif., it will test a system that allows reservists and retirees to go online and place personal orders from a list of products bundled into “club packs.”

Orders will be delivered to the reserve facility for pickup and purchase during the sale. Personal orders will not include produce, meat and other perishable products, but refrigerated items will be available at the sale sites.

Meanwhile, Page says, commissary agency teams and suppliers involved in on-site sales are hearing many favorable comments from shoppers and getting good suggestions to improve future sales. The most frequent complaint heard from shoppers, Page said, “is that their cars were too small.”

Commissaries don’t make a profit. The agency’s motive is to improve quality of life, Page said. He recalls visiting with wounded service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in January and said, “It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. Our military has paid a heavy price in this war. … That makes those of us in the qualify-of-life world understand that whatever we can do for them, we need to do.”

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