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Consumer Watch: Buy commissary gift cards in stores, skip online fees

Jul. 14, 2011 - 12:18PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 14, 2011 - 12:18PM  |  
Commissary gift card
Commissary gift card ()
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The long-awaited commissary gift cards are available in stores and online, in denominations of $25 and $50.

But you'll want to buy them in the store, not online: The online vendor charges a 3.5 percent processing fee on the dollar amount of the gift cards ordered, as well as shipping charges of $1.95 for first-class mail. For orders totaling $200 or more, shipping is $6.95 by priority mail.

If you buy a $25 gift card at the commissary, you'll pay a processing fee of 88 cents. For a $50 gift card, it's $1.75.

Retailers other than the Defense Commissary Agency may not need to charge these fees because they have profit margins to absorb the cost, said Jim Speir, director of sales for SVM LP, the vendor DeCA officials chose to handle the gift cards. As a gift card vendor, he said, "we don't have the profit margin retailers have when a customer buys a shirt" with that card.

Nor does DeCA. By law, the commissary agency can sell items only at cost; taxpayer dollars are used to fund the operations, and commissary officials are trying to keep costs down for taxpayers, not increase them.

Target and Walmart don't charge processing fees for gift cards bought online. A Walmart $25 gift card costs a total of $25, and shipping is free. Target charges $1.95 shipping.

Anyone can buy gift cards, but only authorized shoppers can redeem them. The cards are available in stores at full-service, front-end registers, and the commissary website, www.commissaries.com.

Commissary gift cards can be shipped anywhere in the U.S. Outside the U.S., cards can be shipped to APO, FPO or DPO addresses. They expire five years from date of purchase and cannot be reloaded.

DeCA began using gift vouchers in 2009 shortly after the agency's gift-check provider, CertifiChecks Inc., ceased operations. Since then, customers have redeemed nearly 191,000 vouchers for about $4.7 million, officials said.

Commissaries stopped selling gift vouchers once they received their gift cards. Customers who have already bought gift vouchers will be able to redeem them through Aug. 31, 2016.

New stores open

A new $25 million commissary opened June 29 at Fort Bliss, Texas, rounding out the Freedom Crossing open-air shopping center.

Freedom Crossing includes a renovated main exchange that opened in November, alongside other retailers such as Paul Mitchell and GameStop. Eateries include Arby's, Sarku Japan, Buffalo Wild Wings, Smashburger and Val Verde. The outdoor marketplace includes privately owned shops and a multiplex Grand Theatre.

The new commissary features a large produce department, international deli bakery, olive bar, sushi, sandwiches to go and fresh seafood. The hours are good news, too: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.

At Naval Station Norfolk, Va., a newly renovated and expanded exchange opened June 29, with 180,000 square feet of retail space.

The store, now the largest Navy exchange in the world, features more toys, sporting goods, a sunglasses/watch shop and food items, as well as an expanded uniform/tailor shop, a major appliance center, a large selection of mattresses and an improved special-order center.

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