Courter to Congress: 'Commissary Benefit Stronger Than Ever'
By Ronald Kelly
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT LEE, Va., Mar. 27, 2002 The commissary benefit is stronger than ever and customer savings are at an all-time high, the Defense Commissary Agency director told Congress recently.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert J. Courter Jr., director of the Defense Commissary Agency, speaks at the grand opening of a Base Exchange and Commissary at Aviano Air Base, Italy. The new facility, opened on Nov. 7, 2000, is three times larger than the base's old shopping complex. Photo by Staff Sgt. Mitch Fuqua, USAF.
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
That was the essence of a March 12 prepared statement by Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert J. Courter Jr. to the House Armed Services Special Oversight Panel on Morale, Welfare and Recreation. He and several other military resale officials testified on the fiscal 2003 defense budget request.
In his statement, Courter attributed the current strength of the benefit to DeCA's ability to operate, as much as possible, like a business. He thanked the Defense Department, the Commissary Operating Board and the MWR panel for allowing the agency to do so.
"Today, we are providing greater savings for service members and their families on the goods and services they buy than at any other time in history," he said. "We're also operating the agency more efficiently and effectively than ever before."
Courter reflected on the role commissaries in the lives of military members and their families, calling the story "all about family readiness."
"They enable families to locate and live around the world with military members. They are about consistent delivery (to these families) of U.S. grocery products and prices worldwide," he said. "They are about extending the purchasing power of military families by providing substantial savings on grocery prices over the commercial sector.
"Finally, they are about providing a sense of community at our military installations that is especially important when military members deploy and families are left behind. In short," he added, "the commissary provides a critically important core military family support function."
Courter focused on DeCA's two main corporate objectives: increasing savings and sales, and reducing unit cost. Shoppers are netting 30 percent savings in their grocery bills, he said, and "that translates into an additional $2,400 annually in a military family's budget." That, he said, is the reason service members still rate the commissary as one of their top benefits.
"In fact, our latest customer survey shows that we are at an all-time high in terms of customer service and increased levels of satisfaction across the board," Courter added. "We have broken the code and know what customers want, when they want it, in what quantities, and at what price."
He said DeCA was having a good year prior to Sept. 11, 2001, but suffered an immediate dropoff in business that cost about $20 million in lost sales in the remaining three weeks of fiscal 2001. The general said deployments and increased security at military installations continue to hurt sales by cutting the number of shoppers visiting stateside stores.
Sales declined 2.5 percent in the last quarter of calendar 2001 compared to the same time in 2000. Store directors, Courter said, are meeting the problem by engaging the military community head-on with special events and outreach efforts with families that live off base, especially those with deployed sponsors.
The adoption of business practices and attitudes have helped the agency cut operating costs 10 percent, the director told House members. Unit costs are down 12 percent, and overhead expenses at management levels above local stores are down 20 percent, he noted. Resulting savings have provided DeCA with the money needed to invest in capital infrastructure for the future, he said.
Courter concluded his statement expressing his belief that the agency's strategic plan and corporate objectives provide the road map to ensure the continuation of the commissary benefit.
"As with the rest of the nation, 9-11 caused us to look within," he added. "As a result, the Defense Commissary Agency is stronger than ever."
(Ron Kelly works for the Defense Commissary Agency Public Affairs Office, Fort Lee, Va.)