We enlisted the help of Tom Gordy, a Navy Reserve commander, regular commissary shopper, and president of the Armed Forces Marketing Council, an organization representing members of industry that sell products in commissaries and exchanges.
At the Fort Belvoir commissary in Virginia, we compared some 44 items in 16 categories, both national brands and store brands. Then we headed out to two discount retailers, Target and Walmart, and two supermarket chains, Harris Teeter and Safeway.
This unscientific, limited exercise didn’t evaluate the quality of these items. The prices we quote are the shelf prices, and don’t include the 5 percent surcharge the commissary charges at the cash register on all the items in the basket. Nor does it include the sales tax charged at local retail stores, which are going to vary depending on where you live. For example, in Virginia, food items are taxed at 2.5 percent, while other items are taxed at different rates depending on the locality. So take that into consideration as you comparison shop.
- Commissary store brands offer savings in comparison to national brands within the store, sometimes as much as half the price of the national brand, depending on the product. That’s generally the case with any grocer’s store brands. But from there, it’s mixed.
- Civilian discount grocers’ own store brands, generally speaking, beat commissary store brand prices. Of the 16 categories of products we looked at, the commissary had the best store brand price in five. In the remaining 11 categories, either Walmart or Target store brands beat the commissary brand in 10 of those categories. In the remaining category, a Safeway store brand was the best price on sweet peas because of a sale.
“Even after two years, the promise of commissary store brands providing better value isn’t materializing,” said Gordy. He cited the example of ibuprofen, where the issue of commissary private labels started during testimony in a congressional hearing several years ago. At that time, the commissary’s Good Sense brand, which was essentially a private label, was the cheapest, at $2.29 for 100 200-milligram tablets.
Now the commissary’s TopCare private label ibuprofen is 8 cents higher, at $2.37. And the TopCare ibuprofen is 16 percent higher than Walmart’s store brand, which has been reduced to $1.98.
But DoD’s special assistant for commissary operations says it’s difficult to make comparisons between the commissary private label brands and the private labels of other grocers. “This issue of pricing against the outside market is a difficult thing with private label because it’s hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison,” said retired Navy Rear Adm. Robert Bianchi. “You don’t know about the quality level. You can have low, medium and high quality.
“We’ve taken the philosophy and approach that we want all of our private label to be in the mid- to high-quality level,” he said. Thus, the commissary private label price could be higher for the similar item because the commissary private label brand is of higher quality.
Nonetheless, Nielsen’s analysis of data on pricing of private label brands shows commissary prices are indeed competitive, Bianchi said. The commissary’s prices on private labels beat the prices on 75 percent of the overall market in 13 of the top 16 private label categories, Bianchi said. “That’s a good indicator for us that our pricing is competitive. Are we going to match every private label price with Kroger or Walmart or whatever? Probably not.
“My philosophy is that we want to provide a value. We want it to be a value proposition for the customer and to give them that lower price point choice,” Bianchi said. He gave a hypothetical example of a can of green beans being priced lower at a discount grocer, than at the commissary. “But without the quality factor in there, it’s hard to say mine is not a better value.”
Store brands in the commissary include Freedom’s Choice for food items; HomeBase for nonfood items such as paper products and other household items. Under the TopCare name, you’ll find products such as over-the-counter medications, vitamins, first aid supplies and beauty care items. Under Tippy-Toes labels you’ll find baby and child care items.
“Private label is a major component, not just in the grocery industry, but all the retail industry. It’s a fact of life. If they’re not getting [private label] from us, they’ll go somewhere else,” Bianchi said. “The idea was to introduce another price point.”
“There’s been a lot of growth in private label over the years, and supermarkets are upping their game in variety and quality,” said Laura Strange, spokesman for the National Grocers Association, a national trade association representing independent retail and wholesale grocers. These supermarkets are family owned or privately controlled retail companies operating in a variety of formats. “Price is an important factor, but the quality of private label products has improved, and with it an improved perception from consumers about private label quality,” she said.
Bottled water is one category where private label brands generate more than 25 percent of sales overall in stores in the U.S., according to Nielsen.
In the commissary, the store brand bottled water — Freedom’s Choice — beat out the shelf prices for other store brands, by 11 percent for spring water, and 27 percent for the purified water. Freedom’s Choice was also less than half of the regular price of the same size of national brands in the store. Of note, those national brands were all on sale the day we shopped at the commissary, but the lowest price was still $1.55 higher than the Freedom’s Choice.
- National brands in commissaries did well in our survey. In the 44 comparisons, the commissary had the best price on 24 items, compared to the other four stores. Of those, the savings in the commissary on the national brand was at least 20 percent in eight of those brands, compared to the same product in the other four stores. The commissary pricing system has changed on national brands; they’re no longer sold at cost from the vendor. Commissary officials can mark up or mark down the national brand prices, so that price isn’t necessarily what the vendor charged the commissary.
National brands are the commissary’s strong suit, Bianchi said, and they’re always going to be the majority of items in commissaries. “Even if I get to the point where we have all the private label items we projected, over the next couple of years or so, it’s probably not going to be more than about 10 percent of the store.”
The savings we found varies by category and item. Commissary prices generally compared favorably in the frozen vegetables we analyzed, both in national brands and store brands. In the canned vegetables aisles, the national brands fared well in the commissary, but Walmart’s store brand beat out the commissary store brands, as well as the others.
What does this limited experiment mean for you, the shopper, looking solely at price? It depends on how you shop, Gordy said. If you’re buying most or all store brands, the commissary may not have the best price compared to discount retailers.
But if you’re buying mostly national brands, the commissary generally provides the best price.
From Bianchi’s perspective, it’s the overall savings that matter, and commissaries are still exceeding their requirements for customer savings. "While it’s important we keep a sharp eye on individual prices of every item, and we always want to remain competitive with the outside market, it’s going to be inevitable they’re running some special or whatever.
“In the aggregate, it’s whether that military family is leaving the commissary with a basket where they’re overall saving money.”
What’s your experience with store brands in commissaries? Contact senior reporter Karen Jowers at email@example.com.
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.