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Editorial Comment — April 2017

Transformation,Transition …
Philosophers tell us, this too shall pass.

Every month in military resale good people retire, move on, ride into the sunset … many do so after years and years of hard work and dedication, and without any fanfare at all. Often, their most prized reward is the deep inner satisfaction of having served the nation’s troops faithfully and knowing they did the right thing.

For some others, perhaps the task has been to salute the marching orders given, run them up the flagpole no matter what the consequences, and say, “Yes, sir, how high do you want me to jump?” For all intents and purposes, resale is a nearly military environment, and sometimes the emphasis is on execution, including implementing edicts from the Pentagon and from Congress; but at the highest levels of leadership, those with the hands on the tiller must ask themselves if the order is a good one. Does it run counter to what my best advice would be? Does it keep faith with troops and their families? Is it the right thing to do?

These are questions that can be answered only by the leader, and the answers can change as the situation changes.

They are also some of the questions we hope that whoever is selected to run the military commissary system this summer will take to heart and re-examine. The best soldiers live by this credo, and it is not easy. We have such soldiers currently leading the exchanges, leaders who will fight for the military benefit and their families ... and give their services the benefit of their full knowledge and expertise.

As for the commissary system itself and the matter of who the government will install in one of the most important seats in military resale — we can but hope it is a person of conscience aligned with the interests of the patrons, who understands that money spent on properly taking care of military families and their morale generates returns many times over and exerts an abiding influence on the people who conduct combat operations.

As for those remaining to oversee and operate the system — all will need to work together to mend the pieces that have been broken for so long, as well as to strengthen and restore those under strain and in jeopardy of failing; and to ensure that new infrastructure support systems are thoroughly tested, debugged and operational before being assigned key roles in new programs. This is the only way to protect and to save any meaningful military resale benefit.

Much work must be done to bring patrons back. And part of that should be to preserve as much as possible of the at-cost commissary pricing that patrons have long been able to count on; and to return to value brands intended to benefit the military customer instead of private label products intended to benefit the system.

Superb customer service, though the right tone must be set by those at the top, cannot be dictated from headquarters; but it is essential in all store-level interactions with patrons, from the store director down to the newly hired intern or trainee. And keeping the shelves and cases stocked with the fresh, nutritious products patrons choose to buy is the backbone of that essential superb customer service.

At store level, there can be no excuse for failing to cull outdated goods, moldy produce or discolored meat … and there can be no excuse for regulations or management that might encourage turning a blind eye to such profoundly disrespectful offenses.

Paying more attention to the patrons wouldn’t hurt, either. For years, the National Military Family Association and dozens of other military and veterans’ service organizations have proposed a return of the long-ago-abandoned Patron Advisory Council. The council’s role: to discuss customers’ views of resale plans, programs and situations with the Pentagon and military resale agencies regularly, instead of waiting until attention is drawn to them by viral posts on Facebook and other social media.

Just as important to commissary survival will be to cut unnecessary overhead and duplication, and structure the most cost-effective workforce possible. Adding more DoD workers may not be a good long-term idea for smaller government, but judicious reliance on part-timers and flexible schedules could perhaps help relieve congestion at some chronic pressure points.

Contributing to the Pentagon’s widely publicized contractor bloat is not a very good idea.

There is a time for seeking private-sector advice, but though often highly evolved, it does not come cheap; and betting the farm on fine-tuning business techniques which may be more applicable outside the gate shifts the spotlight away from its proper focus: Compensation. Benefit.

A congressional panel recently heard three experts say that overall, defense reform has put much on the Pentagon’s plate; and a little time is needed to see the results before planning the next steps. The same is true of commissary reform. For starters, DoD must put a hold on adding any further private-label items to see if the first batch sell and are “profitable” before throwing additional potentially good money after unknown results.

Remember … what has drawn patrons into commissaries for many decades have been brand-name products that were sold at cost!

Equally important is to retrace the steps that attracted industry promotional dollars to military stores (instead of pushing them away with unfavorable policies) so the resale services can more effectively market to their patrons. The system must refresh and rebuild the close connections with industry partners that characterized the commissary business and benefit not all that long ago.

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