ECN CoverE&C Commissary News

Editorial Comment — August/September 2018

Freedom of Choice …

Don’t get excited … we’re not plugging DeCA’s house brand, Freedom’s Choice.

With all the push to make military families feel warm and fuzzy about having the same grocery shopping experiences as civilians, with private labels and variable prices on almost every shelf, why are policymakers so hell-bent on limiting commissary patrons’ choices in their own stores?

There are more than enough Aldi, Walmart and now even Lidl outlets nearby that if any significant number of commissary patrons had truly wanted a broad swath of private label items before the trade-in/switch-out of a good part of their commissary stock assortment was made — before the boom was lowered on them with new savings benchmarks, variable pricing and private label — they could easily have found those items outside the gate. And for most eligible commissary shoppers these days, those other stores are much closer and easier to get to.

It bears asking, then, who has really benefited the most from the reduction of name-brand items in favor of private label? It doesn’t seem to be the patrons. Do sales really show them embracing the new store brands versus some of the national brands and promotions that were rejected in favor of private label? Oh, wait … in some categories and cases they no longer have much of a choice anyway, so that comparison gets harder to make with every passing day.

And given the small offset to appropriated funding involved, versus top-line sales lost, it doesn’t appear that the taxpayers really gained much, either, when it comes to comparing the savings to patrons that tax dollars actually generated before and after all the shell games.

So we ask again, who really benefits, if not the patrons, if not the taxpayers ... ? Some large business concern or other?

The part that in the rear-view mirror seems perhaps the most farcical, was that not all that long after 2012, when customers had made more than $6 billion in purchases, baloney began to circulate that customers no longer understood what their “at-cost (plus surcharge)” benefit was, and what they really should want instead was private label house brands and variable pricing. Baloney indeed! Replacing “at-cost” with variable pricing was a prerequisite to make private label even worth an effort for the government; private label, without margin, is a pointless exercise … unless of course one truly believes that patrons want generic products in generic packages, just because.

Legislators, policymakers, think tanks, task forces, and top management must think long and hard about what they really wish for when it comes to delivering the mission support the commissary benefit represents. Expand private label? Turn over much of the DeCA’s operation to the control of one or two big businesses?

Attempting to adapt the techniques or mimic the commercial successes of last year or the year before is not a promising strategy in a marketplace that day by day becomes even more difficult for even the most agile, practiced, expert grocers to sustain their business edge.

Keep in mind, while tinkering or tampering with the benefit, that any decrease would mean taking away something extremely important to the nation’s military families. Largely built and renovated with the more than $7 billion in surcharge funds collected since DeCA’s activation, the commissaries truly belong to them!

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