Commissaries are on-base stores that sell discounted groceries to authorized customers, and the commissary is a benefit that’s prized by many as a way to stretch those hard-earned dollars.
Eligibility: Active duty, Guard and Reserve members, military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients, and their authorized family members. These shoppers have IDs issued by DoD. Commissary employees can also shop, but not their family members.
As of Jan. 1, 2020, the eligibility has been expanded by law to all veterans with service-connected disabilities, Purple Heart recipients, former prisoners of war, and primary family caregivers of eligible veterans enrolled under the Department of Veterans Affairs Program of Comprehensive Assistance for Family Caregivers. Service connected disabled and other veterans who are eligible will use their veterans health ID card, or VHIC, to gain access to the installation, and to shop. Spouses and other family members aren’t allowed to shop; however, the are allowed to come into the stores with the veteran. They just can’t buy anything. Family caregivers who qualify for the benefit will have access to a memo at VA.gov which will be used for entry, along with a driver’s license, passport or other authorized form of ID.
Pricing and savings: Commissaries add a 5 percent surcharge at the cash register which is generally used to pay for construction and renovation of stores, and equipment purchases. Because commissaries receive taxpayer funding each year for most operating costs, they’re able to offer groceries at generally lower prices overall than civilian stores. The law requires that overall, average commissary savings must be consistent with the baseline savings of 23.7 percent, compared with civilian grocers outside the gate. The commissary agency compares prices with up to three commercial grocers, including one supercenter, in the local area of each commissary in the U.S.
The baseline was set in 2016, before reforms went into effect that changed the pricing in commissaries, allowing the Defense Commissary Agency to mark prices up or down from the manufacturer’s price, in response to competition outside the gate, and to use some of the money to reduce the amount of taxpayer dollars needed for commissaries.
Commissaries have a variety of initiatives to improve convenience and savings for customers, such as the Your Everyday Savings (YES!) program. That program has dropped prices long term on hundreds of popular brand items ranging from certain brands of toilet tissue, baby food, Spam, yogurt, to cereal and other types of products.
Special sales are typically held in the spring and fall, often in tents outside the commissaries.
Through the commissary agency “rewards card” program, manufacturers provide online coupons. Customers pick up the card at their local commissary; register it through the MyCommissary site, then log in to their account periodically to load new coupons on the card. The card is scanned at the register to apply the coupons to purchases.
Commissaries also sell their own private label brands under seven names: Freedom’s Choice for food items; HomeBase for non-food items; TopCare for health and beauty items; Tippy Toes for baby products; Full Circle Market for natural and organic foods; Flock’s Finest for wild bird food; and Pure Harmony, for pet food.
Payment accepted: Cash, personal checks, travelers checks, money orders, debit cards, Military Star card, American Express, MasterCard, Visa, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Women, Infants and Children (WIC), American Red Cross Disbursing Orders, commissary gift cards, and coupons.
Sales restrictions: Most commissaries don’t sell beer or wine, although there’s a limited test selling the libations in 12 stores. Commissaries do sell tobacco in stores on Army and Air Force bases, on a consignment basis from the Army & Air Force Exchange Service. Prices vary; because DoD policy is that tobacco can’t be sold at a discount greater than 5 percent below the lowest competitor in the local area.
Some commissaries overseas have restrictions; such as ration controls in South Korea in order to control black marketing of U.S. goods. For example, there are limits on the amount of beer, wine and liquor.
Rules on who can use overseas commissaries are affected by status-of-forces agreements between host nations and the U.S. Situations vary by country, and individuals should check with the local U.S. military command or installation they plan to visit before they travel – such as service members on leave, retirees and others.
Online ordering/curbside pickup: The commissary agency has been rolling out its new Click2Go, with four sites in Virginia: Fort Eustis,Naval Air Station Oceana, Fort Belvoir, and Quantico Marine Corps Base. Customers choose their items online, selects a pickup time, and at the appointed time, head to the Click2Go parking spaces where commissary employees brings their groceries to their car and finish the transaction.
Guard/Reserve On-Site Sales: This program allows Guard and Reserve members and other authorized customers to order items and have them delivered to areas that are not close to a commissary. Units can call their nearest commissary to discuss the possibility of hosting an on-site sale. Upcoming sales are listed on the commissaries.com site under the “Shopping” icon.
Gift cards: Anyone can purchase these online for authorized patrons to use, but there’s a shipping and handling fee for online orders. They can be shipped anywhere in the U.S., or to APO, FPO or DPO addresses. The gift cards are also available for purchase in commissaries worldwide, without shipping and handling fees, in denominations of $25 or $50. In addition, the commissary agency is rolling out new “open value” cards that allow purchasers to put any amount between $5 and $300 on them. These are available online, too, as well as at about 40 commissaries currently. Commissary officials are working with Navy Exchange officials to sell them in their stores, too. The gift cards expire five years from the date of purchase.
Locations and hours: Most commissaries have evening and weekend hours. To find a store, and get information such as hours and directions, visit www.commissaries.com and click on “Shopping,” then “Locations.”
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.