Most Commissaries Not Closing; Future is 'Bright'
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13, 2003 Editors note: This is a resend of a story originally posted Dec. 12, "Most Commissaries Not Closing; Future is 'Bright.'" This version contains corrected information about commissaries.
To soothe anxiety among service members and their families about reports of the Defense Department closing commissaries, a top DoD official emphasized here this week that the department strongly supports commissaries as an important benefit of military service.
In an interview at his Pentagon office, John M. Molino said, "The future of the commissary benefit is very sound, very healthy." Molino is deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, and acting deputy undersecretary of defense for equal opportunity. "The department is committed to maintain a commissary benefit."
Calling recent media coverage of the commissary issue "slanted and inaccurate," Molino said DoD strongly supports the commissary benefit. Commissary customers save 30 percent on average in comparison to shopping at civilian supermarkets.
Molino said the controversy goes back three years to when, shortly after arriving at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked whether the department should be running a chain of grocery stores.
"We did a detailed analysis of whether or not there were other ways to deliver the commissary benefit," Molino said. "The conclusion was that the commissary needs to stay (as) something we do within the Department of Defense, even though it is outside our core competency."
People tend to forget that DoD conducted a review and that Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz concluded that the commissary is not an item for privatization, Molino noted.
"The leadership of the department has told us that that the commissary issue is off the table," Molino noted. "We are now focused on good management and providing the best benefit we can. We subject the commissaries to the same customer satisfaction indexes that private sector grocery stores do."
He said the commissaries' performance is much better and customers are happier than ever before. "They're happier with the selection of the groceries, and the cleanliness and the quality of the stores," he added.
Even though DoD isn't searching for ways to close commissaries, Molino said, realistically, there might be a location that needs to be closed.
The No. 1 priority governing keeping a commissary open is the number of active duty personnel assigned, which should be at least 100, he said. "But if you don't hit that number, it doesn't always mean we'll close the commissary," Molino noted. "We look at all of the factors and weigh heavily the quality of life implications of closing the store."
But he quickly added that "more often than not, we leave commissaries open in isolated areas where they lose money every week. But we do that knowingly and willingly, because that's the only way the service members can have their commissary benefit because of the rural and isolated nature of the location."
He noted that the more remote a store is, the more likely it is to stay open. Since fiscal 2001, DoD has closed nine commissaries. Five were at bases that had closed. Four other stores were closed at places where the population fell and a newer, better commissary was nearby.
DoD doesn't want to close any commissary, but it will do so if one is draining the system to the point of affecting customer support throughout the system, Molino noted.
For example, DoD closed the commissary at Fort Monroe, Va., about two months ago. "It's literally a 10- minute drive to the commissary at Langley Air Force Base, which is much larger, much better stocked and provides a better service," the deputy undersecretary noted. "We found that the customers were ahead of us. They'd stopped shopping at Fort Monroe. They were shopping at Langley, because they knew it was a better store that provided a better service."
Whenever a commissary is closed, an exchange service often steps in to fill the gap with an exchange market operation, the deputy undersecretary said. "The market provides the bread-and-milk kind of service you'd find at a convenience store," Molino explained.
He noted that when Fort Schafter, Hawaii, was closed, a new commissary opened at Pearl Harbor, which is about a 20-minute drive away.
The void at Fort Schafter was filled when the Army and Air Force Exchange Service opened an exchange market store there, Molino noted. "The people who live on Schafter are able to get the quick milk-and bread-type items they need," he said. "They travel to the Pearl Harbor commissary for the big groceries."
Noting that there are 276 commissaries around the world, Molino said 19 have been put on a "watch list."
"That leaves 257 that are in good shape, operating very well and are not in danger of closing," he said. "We look at every store every year. Those that fall below the criteria for what we would otherwise call a healthy store get put on a watch list."
Some stores in Europe are on the watch list because of population shifts. "There are several stores over there that bear close scrutiny," Molino said.
But Gen. Burwell B. Bell, commander of U.S. Army Europe and 7th Army, is fighting to keep them open. He sent a strong letter to Dr. David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, indicating that he thinks those stores should not be closed. Molino indicated that Bell's views would certainly be considered and that he expected they would be included in any input for the Department of Army.
Molino called the future of commissaries "bright," and the benefit for service members and their families "healthy."
"It's healthier today than it was three years ago, and healthier today than it was 12 years ago, when the (Defense) Commissary Agency was formed," he said. "The benefit gets better and better as we become more efficient and more effective," Molino said.