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Commissary Consumer Advocate Listens, Answers

By Staff Sgt. Alicia K. Borlik, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 1999 – There are 2,000 good reasons to shop in your commissary. It's part of Kaye Fannin's job to make sure you know what they are.

Fannin is the Defense Commissary Agency consumer advocate, a position the agency created in 1998 as a kind of combination spokesperson, booster, problem solver, confidante, ombudsman, and more. Studies have shown regular shoppers annually save 20 percent to 26 percent on groceries, she said -- and that comes to about $2,000 for a family of four.

Commissary shopping, she said, is a part of every service member's total military pay and compensation package. "It is a benefit to you and, through continuous shopping, you will save money over going outside the gate," she said.

The commissary agency's biggest challenges come from outside the gate, she admitted. "Customers see cheaper prices at off-post stores and wonder whether they're getting the best deals on post." Fannin's answer is an emphatic "yes."

Part of her job as consumer advocate is to respond to customers' concerns and explain how the commissary works. Pricing issues are among the most frequent she fields.

"The perception of a lot of our shoppers is that commissaries aren't competitive. I believe that is a misperception," she added. "I'm not saying they can't find things cheaper. Customers can go into a market off base and find items that are cheaper than in the commissary -- but we call them 'loss leaders.'" Those are items sold at or below cost to attract shoppers.

Commissary customers may routinely find lower-priced specials outside the gate, but their commissary register tape for the whole market basket will be consistently lower, Fannin said.

She's quick to point out ways the commissary agency keeps prices low and saves customers money. One is special savings, offered when companies agree to put certain items on sale for lower than current prices, Fannin said.

"It's our way of saying to customers that industry is working with us to keep us competitive," Fannin said. Trading partners also provide the coupon packets found at the commissary entrances and throughout the store.

The commissary agency also negotiates with its trading partners for the lowest price, she continued. It went into high gear recently when there were reports that it was paying almost 15 percent more than civilian markets for the same items.

"We talked to our trading partners to make sure they all know that we must have the lowest, rock-bottom price," Fannin said. "They didn't respond to that lightly." Four major companies, for instance, gave agency officials a lesson in their pricing policies.

"They said they start us in their 'lowest-price' range, but we sometimes don't stay there because there are some costs associated with getting distributor items to commissaries," Fannin explained. The meetings weren't one-sided: Traders agreed to provide shoppers with more special savings items and the commissaries with the option of selling "value brands," she added.

She said DeCA is testing value brands in Southeastern U.S. commissaries to see how well they sell. Value brand products are of comparable quality to national name brands but sell for less. Some companies sell national and value brands of some items, she said.

Another hot issue among vocal customers is a 1 percent price rise that hits commissary shelves Oct. 1, 1999. "Our customers are not going to be pleased with the price increase," Fannin acknowledged. "But even a 1 percent increase is going to be a better deal than shopping outside the gate."

Customers have been asking whether the 1 percent is an increase in the 5 percent surcharge the agency uses to pay for a number of maintenance and construction expenses. It's not, Fannin said, but rather an attempt to cover losses due to theft and spoilage. Civilian markets add in such losses when setting their prices -- it's part of the normal cost of selling goods, she said.

Fannin said she has received numerous e-mails and phone calls from concerned customers in her first six months on the job. The top issue, she said, is item selection -- patrons tell her they want what they want everywhere they go.

"They have an item they like, they PCS to another part of the country or world, and they want that product to accompany them," she said. "They find out their new commissary doesn't stock the item and they don't understand why."

Sometimes it's possible to get the item and sometimes not, Fannin said. Sometimes there's no way to get a product, perhaps because a company only sells it in certain areas; for example, regional brands of potato chips, soda and canned goods.

"But if there is a way, we will do it," she said.

Fannin is the commissary shoppers' direct link to agency policy and decision makers. She is responsible for maintaining two-way communications between commissary patrons and agency officials. She is the agency's liaison to the National Military Family Association and other groups representing commissary shoppers.

"If you don't take care of your customers, someone else will," the consumer advocate said. "We have to make sure we listen to what they have to say and factor that in when we make decisions."

Customers are still encouraged to use local channels to voice concerns about their local commissary. Shoppers can also fill out a "Your Action Line" customer comment card, which is sent to the commissary agency's inspector general's office for review.

"As I get comments from field through letters, calls or e- mail, I provide the IG with follow-up so they can keep track of what our customers are saying," Fannin explained. "We look at it from a statistical perspective as well as to identify any trends or continuous problems in certain areas."

For now, Fannin does most of her customer work by phone and e-mail. Commissary customers call or e-mail their concerns to her, and she responds. "Turnaround time is almost immediate," she said. The response is the answer or a note that she's working on the question or has sent the issue to another commissary department with a deadline for action.

In addition to fielding customer questions, Fannin helps develop new ways to involve customers in the commissary. One initiative is for the agency to form a commissary consumer panel, the members of which represent the customer base. The panel would be a sounding board. The commissary agency might find panelists by tapping local commissary councils and other interested groups. "This would give consumers another forum for input," she said.

Along those same lines, the agency already has a seven- member retiree council, which met for the first time in November last year. Six are retired service members and one is a retiree's spouse. The council will meet twice a year.

To reach Fannin, click the Web site envelope icon to send e-mail or call toll-free 1-800-699-5063, ext. 48772 or DSN 687-8772. To send e-mail outside the site, her address is fanninpf@hqlee.deca.mil.

Fannin's mailing address is:

Consumer Advocate

Office of Public Affairs

Defense Commissary Agency

1300 E Ave.

Fort Lee, VA 23801-1800.

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