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Consumer Watch: Exchanges can draw troops' business with lower prices

Jul. 8, 2011 - 11:33AM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 8, 2011 - 11:33AM  |  
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Attention, commissary and exchange officials: If you want to know why you've lost business to stores such as Walmart, Home Depot and Target, listen up.

"Start by bringing the prices down," wrote Army Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Collins, the Indianapolis Recruiting Battalion's master trainer. "But hey, I'm just a soldier that shops at Walmart, Target and Best Buy instead of the exchange … what do I know?"

Plenty, and the commissaries and exchange services are listening, said Patrick Nixon, president of the American Logistics Association and former director of the Defense Commissary Agency. "We've spent so much time communicating with those who shop and not with those who don't. That's the next step."

Military stores are concerned that civilian retailers are intensifying efforts to "position themselves in the hearts and minds of our military community" by donating to military causes and hiring spouses and veterans, said Cindy Whitman Lacy, chief operating officer of the Marine Corps Exchange.

But Military Times readers say it's not about donations to military charities or supporting military communities. Nor do they feel obligated to shop at military exchanges because part of the profits go to morale, welfare and recreation programs.

Readers say the real issues are price, quality and selection — especially at the military exchanges. A few complained about the quality of produce and lack of private-label "generic" brands in commissaries.

The exchanges "can't just say, ‘We support the troops,' and think that soldiers are going to run in there and spend their hard-earned money when they can go to Walmart, Target, Best Buy and a host of other places and get more variety, at better prices," Collins said.

Many troops have grown up shopping at big-box stores such as Walmart and Target, and more and more keep springing up near military installations.

The exchanges say it's a challenge to satisfy everyone with their selection, and thier price comparison surveys show that exchange shoppers save an average of more than 20 percent compared to retailers outside the gate. But Military Times readers who responded to a recent article perceive the prices differently.

About 70 percent of troops and families live off base, and many acknowledge a convenience factor in their shopping choices. By some estimates, about 60 percent of authorized shoppers do not shop at military stores. Use does seem higher among active-duty members.

In the 2009 Status of Forces Survey, 90 percent of active-duty members who responded said they or their family had used a commissary in the previous 12 months. Of those, 81 percent had shopped at least once a month.

About 87 percent had shopped at an exchange in the previous 12 months. Of those, 82 percent had shopped at least once a month.

Military stores also want shoppers to spend more of their dollars on base. In a recent unscientific Military Times online poll, 49 percent of those who responded said they do more than 80 percent of their personal shopping off the installation. Another 18 percent do 60 to 80 percent of their shopping off base.

For commissaries, that tracks with 2010 data showing that shoppers spent about 23 percent of their grocery dollars in commissaries and 77 percent elsewhere last year.

But most readers' comments were related to the military exchanges.

Collins would like to shop more at his exchange at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind.

"It's the only exchange around here, and so I keep going back hoping that they have something new, but they never do," he said.

Navy Chief Gunner's Mate Paul Rezendes said he has seen improvements in his exchange's selection recently, but wrote, "I still feel they have lost focus on just who their customer base actually is. For as long as I can remember now, they have sold clothing and electronics that only the highest-price boutiques would sell."

Arizona Army National Guard Staff Sgt. Brian Tobin cited a "huge disparity in pricing from one installation to another … and often it is much higher than what the off-post retailers" charge, he said.

Collins said he bought a 32-inch flat-screen television at a Best Buy in Indiana at $150 below the exchange price.

A Navy family member said she wants to see more consistency in selection among exchanges. At Navy exchanges, she sees a lot of brand names at great prices, but "I cannot bring myself to pay those prices for ‘name brands.' I appreciate that when I go to an Air Force exchange I can find quality clothing at a great price that I can afford."

Marine Sgt. Dan Johnson zeroed in on customer service:

"When I ask for my military discount at Lowe's or Home Depot, they happily give it to me and thank me for my service."

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