Base access, store restrictions continue to plague commissaries, exchanges

Base access has been a nagging problem for both commissaries and exchanges for years, and when the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, it made things that much worse for these military stores and shoppers wanting to use them.

The emergence of the pandemic was particularly difficult for retirees and veterans — perhaps among the most at-risk groups related to the pandemic — and their ability to get on base to do their shopping in their local military stores.

Numerous rules and restrictions were put in place by base commanders to limit access to their respective bases, and when these were lessened or relaxed, retirees and veterans were often the groups that were thought to need the most protection, and thus, had their base access more limited than other groups.

And this stance was eerily ironic, as the pandemic hit when the American Logistics Association (ALA) was working with the resale agencies to boost access to military stores, including the launch of expanded privileges for disabled veterans and its work to allow the Defense Department’s civilian workers to have shopping privileges.

Although through the end of August many sites had loosened the tight restrictions they had implemented when the pandemic struck, other bases were more cautionary, and this had a major impact on store sales during this period.

The Department of Defense announced this week that they will be issuing new ID cards to some five million retirees and family members in the coming years with enhanced capability to speed base access.  Also, ALA is working with the Federation for Identity and Cross Credentialing that is examining alternative and innovate practices and technology to speed base access and patron identification.  ALA is also examining ways to speed communication of changes to base access and store restrictions to exchange and commissary patrons.  

EXCHANGE, COMMISSARY SALES

The exchange services are generally reflecting sales downturns, and although at least some of this can be attributed to lessened gas sales, the fluctuations of access during the pandemic must also be taken into account.

Through July 2020, the Army & Air Force Exchange Service’s (AAFES) fiscal 2020 sales were $2.91 billion, a 10.1-percent decrease from the $3.23 billion it accrued a year earlier.

The Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM) and Marine Corps Exchange (MCX) followed suit. NEXCOM’s fiscal 2020 sales through July were $1.03 billion, an 8.7-percent dip from the $1.13 billion it posted through July 2019. The MCX reported $381.09 million in sales through July 2020, a more than 9-percent drop-off from year-to-date fiscal 2019 sales of $410.67 million.

Only the Coast Guard Exchange (CGX) posted heightened sales, with its activity through July at $81.49 million, a 16.3-percent increase from the $76.65 million it posted a year earlier. This might be attributed to some of the larger CGX facilities operating in off-base sites in civilian areas, making patron access easier.

Through July the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) reported that stores had posted a 2.0-percent uptick in fiscal 2020 sales, based on year-to-date sales of $3.77 million versus $3.69 million in sales from a year ago. However, there were numerous commissaries that continued to face hurdles in getting shoppers, and particularly retirees and veterans, into their stores, and this was, at least in part, greatly impacting sales at these bases.

BASE ACCESS PRECAUTIONS

ALA publishes an inventory of base restrictions that is assembled by DeCA. On Aug. 25, the agency released its latest update related to base and store access during the pandemic, and it painted a grim reminder that with the coronavirus far from being eradicated, shoppers — and particularly retirees and veterans and those classified as “elderly” and “high-risk” — continued to face hurdles related to getting on base to shop in their local military stores.

According to the update, the following installations were among the many that continued to have shopping restrictions placed on shoppers, and in particular, retirees and veterans:

  • Fort Buchanan, P.R.: Beginning on April 14, retirees could only shop on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and beginning on June 16, disabled veterans could shop Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
  • NAES Lakehurst, N.J.: After several months of retirees and disabled veterans having extremely limited or no shopping privileges, on June 23, disabled veterans could only shop on Tuesday and Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m.
  • Fort Eustis, JB Langley-Fort Eustis, Va.: Retiree access to the base had been limited to Monday and Tuesday, but as of May 18, retirees were able to access the base on Friday.
  • Redstone Arsenal, Ala.: Retirees only have access on Thursday, 1:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. On April 9, the deputy installation commander devised a 9 a.m. to 12 moon target window for elderly shoppers. 
  • Nellis AFB, Nev.: Retirees can access the main base on the weekends — Saturday and Sunday — only.
  • Camp Pendleton, Calif.: Retirees can do their shopping only on Wednesday, and seniors age 60 and above can only do their shopping on Thursday.
  • Whidbey Island, Wash.: As of March 26, the store was open for the elderly “and any others who were at high risk” from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.

In overseas stores, and particularly on European installations, the general rule has been “designate shopping times for only retirees and elderly to shop that have increased ramifications if they were to contract the virus.”

 

DeCA CCSS begins with Covid-19 safety measures

The Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) launched its annual worldwide Commissary Customer Service Survey (CCSS) on Aug. 24, with new safety measures in place to help prevent COVID-19 exposure. The survey was available for 10 consecutive operating days ending on or before Sept. 11, depending on the commissary’s operating schedule.

Customers were randomly selected to participate in the survey, which evaluates areas such as customer service; pricing; savings; product availability and selection; cleanliness; store layout; and produce, meat, grocery, deli and bakery quality.

“Extreme care will be given to adhere to social distancing measures,” said James Taylor, chief of the agency’s Store Operations Division. “We are working with commissary personnel at each location to ensure safety protocols are put in place to help prevent exposure to COVID-19.”

(U.S. Air Force photo by Jerry Saslav)

THE WAY IT WORKED

Commissary associates offered customers the opportunity to rate their stores at the commissary entrance area before they shopped. 

When being asked to participate, customers were presented with three options:

• Scan a QR code and take the survey on their own mobile device.

• Have the store employee ask the questions and the store employee enter the responses in the store’s iPad.

• Personally complete the survey on the store’s iPad.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Jill Pickett)

SAFETY MEASURES

Commissary employees had gloves and disinfectant wipes to sanitize the iPad between each use and provided gloves and wipes to each customer electing to use the store-provided iPad.

“We consider the health and welfare of our customers and our commissary associates our top priority and that is why we will follow the highest standards of Department of Defense (DoD) health protection as we present this survey,” said Robert Byrne, management and program analyst. “Every effort will be made to ensure the safety of our commissary associates and customers during the annual CCSS process.”

The actions taken during the CCSS process are just a few of many that the commissaries have employed to stem the spread of the coronavirus. These include sneeze and cough guards being used at checkout as physical barriers between the tellers and customers. 

Patrons are also asked to adhere to physical distancing and wear cloth face coverings while doing their shopping in these stores. 

2019 SURVEY

Last year, more than 20,000 shoppers rated the commissaries an overall 4.51, a 4.9-percent increase from 2018’s mark of 4.30. The score is based on a five-point scale, ranging from 1, “Poor,” to 5, “Excellent.” Customers gave commissaries high marks for helpful and courteous employees, store cleanliness and layout, and convenient hours.

“This CCSS is an extremely important measure of commissary performance and it provides us the mechanism to benchmark commissary performance during a fixed period of time,” Taylor said. “We’re committed to delivering a premiere customer experience in every store, and the CCSS survey platform continues to be a powerful tool to help us do that.”

In addition to the annual CCSS, DeCA also employs ForeSee, a survey platform that gives commissaries a real-time snapshot of patron feedback throughout the year.