As defense officials consider consolidating commissaries and exchanges, a retired admiral serving as CEO of Navy Exchange Service Command has been named the interim director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

Retired Rear Adm. Robert Bianchi will start Nov. 6 as interim director of the commissary agency, said Stephanie Barna, acting assistant secretary of defense for manpower and reserve affairs. He will continue in his role with the exchange, Barna said, dividing time between the organizations; the previous commissary director, Joseph Jeu, retired in June.

In an interview with Military Times, Bianchi said he wants to make it clear that the move doesn’t represent a merger of NEXCOM and the commissary system.

“That‘s not what this is about,” said the retired flag officer, who is the first authorized commissary shopper to head the commissary agency in 13 years. “There’s a review that’s ongoing across the entire resale system. That’s one misperception I don’t want people to read into that.

“That being said, we can look into some of the programs and initiatives on the exchange side, as we try to improve sales at the commissary.”

Bianchi’s retail experience makes him a good fit for a commissary agency that has only recently delved into stocking private-label brands and variable pricing, Barna said, adding that it’s too early to determine the effect of those practices on sales.

“He’s had to worry about a profit/loss ledger for many, many years,” she said. “He’s been doing that exceedingly well at NEXCOM.”

He’ll also be able to “cross-pollinate some ... best practices” from the exchange to the commissary, Barna said, but she declined to comment further on proposals to bring the operations under the same umbrella.

“The [deputy secretary of defense] is really taking the lead in those matters,” she said. “I can say with certainty that we recognize the value of all those benefits, but we also recognize that there may be ways in which we can deliver better service and higher quality, perhaps at a lower cost. “

Barna acknowledged concerns about the declining sales in commissaries, and said she wants commissary leaders to delve into those issues and determine what the customer wants. She gave examples of some general grocery-industry trends, including online ordering ― especially of staples, such as diapers paper products ― and home delivery.

“The question rises, what do our military customers need?” Barna said. “Do we need to have a more robust online presence? Do we need to start delivering to the door, do we need to start thinking about how our formats should change?”

Bianchi “brings with him a laser-like focus on the customer” to answer those questions, Barna said. His interim appointment lasts for 240 days, per Office of Personnel Management rules, but it could be made permanent.

“I‘m very honored they asked me to do this,” Bianchi said. “One of the reasons I accepted this is because I do believe in the benefit so passionately. I wouldn’t have taken this on if I didn’t want to ensure the benefit is sustained into the future regardless of the headwinds we may be up against, whether it’s budgetary or pressures outside the gate.

“I think we can win, and that’s why I’m willing to give it a shot.”

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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