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Base stores seek new ways to compete

By: tom philpott Military Update
February 18, 2018 Updated: February 18, 2018 at 4:10 am
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photo - tom philpott,
tom philpott, 

When asked about the current level of savings for commissary shoppers in an era of sweeping reforms, the interim director of Defense Commissary Agency, retired Navy Rear Adm. Robert Bianchi, referred to results of a price comparison survey conducted in 2016 and released in late January.

It showed average savings at commissaries "globally" were 23.7 percent compared with prices at commercial grocery stores. More specifically, patron savings averaged 20.2 percent at stateside commissaries and 44.2 percent overseas.

The same survey also showed average patron savings varied widely across U.S. regions, from a high of 32.6 percent in Alaska and Hawaii to a low near 18 percent for commissary shoppers across the south central and mountain states.

Bianchi and staff said it is the regional saving targets his agency monitors monthly and, in finer detail, quarterly, to ensure that steps to transform commissaries into more businesslike stores are not diluting patron savings.

Savings by region are being tracked monthly and quarterly, a spokesman said.

The larger price comparison survey released a year ago established a new method for calculating savings that included a proportion of prices for private label or store brands. This irked patron advocacy groups because, at the time, commissaries didn't sell their private label goods. The concern was that the timing served to dampen the baseline savings targets set, which commissaries, by law, must sustain forever more.

This occurred long before Bianchi become interim commissaries director last November to lead commissary transformation while also serving as chief executive of the Navy Exchange Service. Bianchi said he believes the baseline for savings, which use regional price comparisons and private labels, more accurately reflects the real value of the benefit. The previous method, which led to claims that patrons saved more than 30 percent, compared commissary prices against average commercial prices for brand goods only nationwide, ignoring popular private labels.

Patron savings are real and substantial, Bianchi said. "But messaging that, connecting that for the customer, becomes important," and variable pricing is key.

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To comment, write Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, VA, 20120 or email milupdate@aol.com or twitter: Tom Philpott @Military_Update

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