Chief backs unlimited shopping by reservists

By Tom Philpott

The director of the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) says he supports a House-passed initiative to give drilling reservists and National Guard personnel unlimited shopping privileges in military grocery stores.
“They are delivering war-fighting capability just as well and as often as active-duty counterparts and should be compensated as first-team members, including from a commissary perspective,” said Maj. Gen. Michael P. Wiedemer.
A House-Senate conference committee will decide the issue.
Wiedemer, an aerospace engineer who spent most of his first 31 military years managing technology programs, took charge of DeCA in August 2002.
He is responsible for centrally managing more than 275 stores, $5 billion in annual sales and a workforce of more than 17,000.
In a phone interview from DeCA headquarters, Fort Lee, Va., Wiedemer discussed a range of commissary issues, including recent survey results showing gains in customer savings and satisfaction.
He talked of winning back patrons who shop elsewhere since 9-11, when tighter base security made it more difficult to reach their commissaries.
Drilling reservists now can shop in commissaries 24 times a year and while on active duty.
Giving them unlimited shopping, said Wiedemer, won’t affect checkout lines, staffing, store hours or overall costs.
“I’ll give you one statistic,” he said. “We classify our most frequent shoppers as those who shop more than two times a month. Our average reservist is in that category already.”
Wiedemer’s views on this are at odds with the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
In a May 22 letter to Congress, OMB opposed extending unlimited commissary shopping to reservists. It argued that this and other House initiatives — a doubling of the military’s $6,000 death gratuity and a new incentive pay for assignment to South Korea — undermine service prerogatives on managing personnel and divert resources from higher priority programs.
Commissary prices are set at cost, plus a 5 percent surcharge at checkout. DeCA’s latest price comparison survey shows average savings, including the surcharge, is 31.7 percent, up 1.2 percentage points from 2001.
The value of commissary shopping for a family of four is now $2,440.
Overall savings hovered at around 25 percent for many years.
They recently climbed past 30 percent, Wiedemer said, for two reasons. One is that DeCA in 2000 began paying a contractor to collect better price data on what commercial grocers paid their suppliers. This data, in effect, armed DeCA managers to negotiate lower prices.
A second factor is profitability within the food marketing industry.
Ten years ago, average net profit on a grocery item was less than a half percent. Today, it’s closer to 1.5 percent.
Higher profits usually mean higher prices, which make items sold at cost, in commissaries, better bargains.
DeCA’s stiffest competitors appear to be “super stores” like Wal-Mart that combine department store products with fully stocked supermarkets.
Wiedemer said he doesn’t have data on how commissary prices compare against these types of stores nationwide. It would be well below 30 percent.
“But I’m sure we would beat them on virtually everything,” he said.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: