Archive Post – Military Rites, Practices & Legends: BX & Commissary Privileges

(An archive post from [gasp] 2004, wherein I attempted to explain and demystify certain military practices and establishments to a strictly civilian readership. I was reminded of this series, as one of the chief effects of the fed-gov shut-down is that just about all of the military commissaries at stateside bases will be closed from about midday today. The resulting effect on the retiree and active duty population at stateside bases probably will be rather minor, especially for those bases in or near larger cities, since Walmart, Target, Costco, Sam’s Club and local grocery chains provide alternative sources.)

The main attraction of these privileges – access to the military base Commissary and Exchange – lies mostly in the fact that such access is forbidden to the usual run of civilians, and so they tend to think of them as vast Aladdin’s caves of riches and materiel things, to which they do not have the magic key! Alas, while I am fairly sure that the gold-plated bases in the military pantheon probably are pretty well stocked with the luxury goods, and may very well resemble Aladdin’s cave, at the ordinary level they are as Cpl. Blondie observed “full of stuff you don’t need.”
When I was giving the school-kiddy tours at Mather AFB, to kids who had never been on a military base before, I would have the school-bus driver take a circuitous loop around the base, and point out the various establishments: “A base is just like a city or a town– this is the Headquarters building, it’s like the Mayor’s office and the City Hall, over there is the housing area, where everyone lives with their families. There is even an elementary school for the kids. That is our grocery store, only we call it the commissary. We even have our own gas station… this is the Exchange, it is just like a small department store, with a little bit of everything…”

The BX and the Commissary exist for a couple of reasons, the main one being that in remote areas they are the only game in town, in overseas locations they are often the most affordable source of familiar goods and comestibles, and at stateside bases because they are convenient to the military workforce and offer prices a little under that of the off-base marketplace… and dammit, because it is our privilege and right, it has always been that way! To suggest changing it radically, or abolishing it all together would be to risk going deaf… from the screams of protest originating from the military and veteran communities. It is also a rationale for military salaries being what they are, since the low salary is offset by being able to live in housing, take advantage of the generous medical benefits, and being able to get name-brand cans of tomato sauce a couple of cents cheaper per 14 ounce can.

I shouldn’t be so flip about saving pennies, though, because it does matter sometimes. There were times in my life when I shopped with a calculator, and carefully weighed the purchase of three onions as opposed to two, and no animal protein costing more than $1.00 a pound made it into my shopping cart. There were other times, especially overseas, when the commissary and the BX were literally the only affordable game in town, or possibly the only one where you could get corn tortillas and hot dogs that your children would actually eat… and even more times when it was just not possible to take the time to shop on the local economy… or times when the local economy was not cooperative, and that didn’t just happen overseas, either.

There were establishments in Sacramento in the 1980ies that refused to take checks from military people, and the only places that would offer terms to military people shopping for appliances and furniture were the sort which had interest rates so abusive that the base commanders were on the verge of declaring them off-limits. Sweet it was, to return to the States in the 1990ies – specifically Utah – and have cashiers there not even ask to look at my ID, if I was in uniform and writing out a check! And even sweeter to have the BX sell major appliances, when the local merchants in Sacramento had screamed bloody murder to their local politicos, when the BX had the temerity to stock microwave ovens. They apparently felt the BX had no right selling us things which we might really need, even if they themselves didn’t want to take checks from military personnel for them.

Politics sometimes affected the commissary, too: for a number of years they stocked Department of Ag surplus cheddar, at 50 cents a pound and damn good cheese it was too; nothing beat it for mac and cheese. A prominent representative for a dairy state made a fact-finding trip to commissaries in Germany and was shocked, shocked, I tell you, to discover that German and French cheeses were on sale there – obviously, he felt that Kraft was good enough for us. Another state rep, not normally noted for his tender concern for our sensitive palates or the military in general made an enormous fuss about stocking California wines in the Class six stores in Europe… which were already stocked, thank you very much, with quite drinkable local vintages. Talk about shipping coal to Newcastle…. A couple of years on the Zaragoza AB Commissary/BX Advisory Committee left me with the feeling that military commissaries were seen in certain quarters as a means of off-loading agricultural surplus on a captive population.
All in all, the Commissary and the BX provide a good and useful service, especially overseas – but please don’t feel that you are being deprived if you don’t have those privileges. The prices can be beaten with a little research and time, and so can the choices, especially in large city. And the Texas grocery chain which has my custom, the “Huge Enormous Big-Ass Grocery” or HEB (which has run nearly all competition out of town due to it’s wide selection and excellent customer service) would never take more than a couple of weeks to begin stocking almond extract.

Another member of the advisory committee made that her crusade. It took two years. A friend of mine finally brought back six little bottles in her luggage, for those of her friends who actually baked with the stuff

10 thoughts on “Archive Post – Military Rites, Practices & Legends: BX & Commissary Privileges”

  1. }}} And the Texas grocery chain which has my custom, the “Huge Enormous Big-Ass Grocery” or HEB (which has run nearly all competition out of town due to it’s wide selection and excellent customer service) would never take more than a couple of weeks to begin stocking almond extract.

    Completely OT, and not looking to hijack the threat… I was in Austin on a job interview. I walked around an HEB, and the thing that struck me the most about it was how much I’d miss having a Florida-based Publix supermarket. I think the HEB did have more stuff, as it was physically larger than the Publix’s I’m familiar with, but it was mostly generic-brand junk that didn’t strike me as worth the minor cost-cutting. Publix in Florida could give HEB a run for their money, I suspect, as they don’t focus as much on providing low-cost generic alternatives as much as lowered costs for name-brand stuff. This is how THEY have done much the same, in kicking the ass of every other chain in Florida

    Here in Gainesville, FL, they’ve run Food Lion, Albertson’s, Kash-n-Karry’s and Winn-Dixie almost entirely out of town, if not entirely. I think there’s two Winn-Dixies in the greater Gainesville, FL, area. There are two “Sweetbays”. There are at least 12 Publix’s, I think.

    They also don’t use that @#$@$#%$% “customer tracking discounts” BS that so many stores do — I did a comparison of prices, for the most part, Publix offered the same price for most items that the other stores did for their “tracked discounts” — so basically the other stores charge you a premium for NOT letting them track you.

    Another dirty trick I noticed decades ago was a trick I know Winn-Dixie pulls, and that’s that they offer a “two for one special”… but strangely, the price for one item is about 50% more than what it is when things are not on sale… it’s a discount, but not the discount they suggest it is. When Publix has 2-4-1 (and they do A LOT), it’s an honest 2-4-1, the price for one is the same before, during, and after the sale. Publix also offers a fair number of “4 for $x” kinds of sales… but the price for one is the same as the price for one if you buy four — that is, the 4-for-x price is only a “suggestion” to buyers, not a requirement to get the discounted price. I was only in Austin for a couple days, and hence no capacity to analyze HEB practices. But Publix is about as well-run a supermarket as I can imagine. I gather Publix also treats their employees well, with good stock options once you’ve been there for a while and so forth, regardless of the level of your skill position. They seem to be a great company to work for.

  2. Over my service time of 20 years, the price advantage of both the post exchange and commissary significantly decreased. The reason was they increasingly became the source of funding for a disproportionate growth of non-appropriated activities (that is functions not funded by the federal budget). These social services mirrored and even outstripped the growth of civilian sector social services during the same period. The posts were expected to support such things as recreation, gyms, day care, etc. with funds generated by these activities augmented by revenue generated by the post exchange, commissary, gas station. The demographic changes that saw the majority of junior enlisted members married with young children and most families with both parents employed, greatly increased the costs of providing these social services. The bulk of service members are these young families and they require a very extensive support system, especially given frequent deployments. In the US, when we were first in the military, the price advantage of the commissary was 20-40% on most items and the exchange was about 20%. By 1990, the commissary was no cheaper than the off post domestic grocery chains, except for about 15% on can goods and saving local sales tax on the few taxable items. About the only significant savings at the exchange was the local sales tax. Convenience was still a plus and variety had increased.

    Your points on the overseas and isolated locations advantages are right on. Not only were overseas local food and consumer goods likely to be quite different, local value added or other taxes usually resulted in them being much more expensive (Europe for the most part). Germans typically shopped daily or every other day for groceries so frozen items were not readily available. Much of their cooking was from scratch so processed foods were at a minimum. You would be hesitant to buy appliances or electronics in Europe given they were 220 volts and 50 cycles. I can only imagine the difficulties of shopping for family needs in Asian countries.


  3. Thanks Mom. An enjoyable and informative article. On the subject of cheap domestic goods particularlyfood, I recommend Dollar Tree and Aldis. Most of the generic items are equal in quality to the top brand names, with many fresh or refrigersted and frozen can cut your food bill in half.

  4. What I remember about the PX was the wicked cheap cigarettes, and the nice little lady that did custom sewing on uniforms.

    Publix, reason #638 for living in the South. The only bad Publix experience I had was in metro Orlando, which of course, is not the South.

  5. Sgt Mom – I am very familiar with the Sacramento area – for years, there was an entire civilian infrastructure dedicated to servicing the Air Force – and all these civilian shops were right off the main gates of Mather and McClellan – when these bases closed – first Mather (which trained navigators and these days not much need for that with GPS and similar) – well, those places became near ghost towns overnight.

    (as a mayor – know what to do with a few surplus 10,000-13,000′ runways?)

    Mather has become a hub for UPS and McClellan – an Airpark for GA.

    Every month as a ritual I take my 90 year old mother to the BX/Commisary to do shopping (my father retired as Army).

    Some of the things aren’t much different from Walmart – some – significant savings.

    No state sales tax.

    Until the Army noted a big problem with alcoholism overseas you could get booze at the Class 6 stores for next to nothing – amazing what taxes do to a price. But that was only overseas. This was the early 70s – I remember buying 750 ml of Wild Turkey for $3.

  6. I remember those businesses just outside the main gate, Bill – there was one, run by a retired NCO where I eventually did buy furniture (a sofa and chair) which I still have. They were nice people, and about the only furniture outlet around who were good about working with us poor struggling NCOs. There was a baby furniture emporium on one of the back streets, who had nothing to do with the military who were also very good about taking checks. I threw a monstrous hissy in a mall shoe store once, buying a pair of baby shoes for my daughter, and they didn’t want to take a check for about 12$, until I pulled out all of my ID, including my passport. I still have a bad taste in my mouth about a large number of retail places in Sacto.

  7. Sgt Mom – stupid civilians – if they knew the last people who would want to bounce a check…..isn’t that an Article 15?

    You will be interested to know that both Mather and McClellan have made a slow recovery – I doubt that they are generating the revenue that 1000s of Air Force personnel contributed….but Mather is a UPS and (I think) Emory Air freight hub – McClellan – the Coast Guard still have their station there – one of the officers, Adam Bryant, was the public affairs officer and gave our car club a 1st class tour of the facilities – Adam and his crew were killed off San Clemente within the year colliding with a Marine helicopter on exercises

    Cal Fire has their headquarters there with a giant DC10 that is used for really big fires – but I don’t think the area – Rancho Cordova and North Highlands – have fully recovered from the base closures (although the old O-Club – at McClellan is quite a nice place for meals and lodging)

    I think Sacramento, along with San Antonio and San Diego – is a huge center for retirees

    Oh, right off Mather was a barber shop – wonder what he offered that the barbers and the BX couldn’t do

  8. As regarding stupid civilians, I tried pointing that out to them, over and over and over. Somehow they seemed to have it imbedded in their pea-brains that military people came and went, and there was no earthy recourse to getting their money, once the military person had transferred from Mather. I think that the small local businesses run by retirees knew better, but other retail establishments were exceedingly snotty about the issue. Maybe it was a WWII-era leftover phobia, but it made no sense at all. To get terms from some of the local furniture outlets, you had to have been living in Sacto for … IIRC, 2 or 3 years. Our First Sgt. in the PA shop got that treatment, when he tried to get some furnishings for his house, after having been overseas for a number of years. Turned him down for getting some items on time. He went around to another store and bought what he wanted straight-out. And told everyone about how rudely the first place treated him.
    Ah well …

  9. This is my take on commissary, PX, golf courses, tennis courts.

    The Officer Corps would go to congress and plead for these things, for young enlisted who could not afford things of base. Because of low pay.

    The Officers took over the golf courses, tennis courts, Px, and commissary if you don’t believe this, just look at who has the prime parking places at these places.

    By the way what would a young enlisted E1 or E2 need Waterford Cristal for.

    Do you get my jest.

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