Over 250 commissaries worldwide are run by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA). DeCA is a separate agency of the Department of Defense headquartered in Virginia. The role of the commissary is to sell groceries at cost plus a surcharge to all active duty, retired, members of the Guard and Reserves and their eligible family members. Commissaries generally save the shopper 30 percent from what it would cost to shop at a local grocery store.
Commissaries have a long history. In 1825 Army officers were given the privilege of shopping on post at cost for their personal use. In 1841 they allowed purchases for family members. It wasn’t until 1867 that enlisted men were allowed to shop at the post warehouses for staples.
The advent of the modern commissary really began around 1868 when every post location also had a commissary and the commissary patterned itself after what was available at the local grocers in the closest town to the post. A list of available products in 1868 was only 82 items long which was comparable to the local stores. The commissaries of today have an average of 11,000 items and the largest have much more. Initially, each military service ran its own commissary service. It wasn’t until 1991 that a directive was issued by DOD to merge all commissary agencies into one which was named DeCA.
The five percent surcharge goes into a fund that is used to improve commissaries and build new commissaries. It has been determined by surveying military customers that it is one of the favorite benefits of being in the military. By using the commissary rather than a local grocery store, a family of four saves approximately $4500 per year. They can save even more if they use manufacturer’s coupons on a regular basis.
The Exchange is basically a department store on a military installation. Some are also located in areas where a military installation has been closed but there are a significant number of retired military members within the area that a reduced size Exchange is left open for their use. Those eligible to use the Exchange stores are any active duty military member, family member, member of the Guards or Reserve Units. At overseas locations civilian employees are also eligible to use the Exchange. Depending on the size of the military installation the Exchange also operates the gas station, beauty salon, barber shop, convenience store, package store, garden shop, furniture store, theater, laundry, dry cleaning, flower shop, optical shop and auto repair shop. The Exchange system also provides multiple fast food places in food court areas. At overseas locations, the Exchanges will also sell American made vehicles.
Exchanges do not receive money from the DOD. They must operate at a profit in order to pay employees and restock merchandise. The benefit to the military member is that they charge the lowest amount possible and there is no sales tax. The space on a military installation is allocated to the Exchange system at no cost so that is another operating cost saver that is passed on to the military consumer in the form of saving on merchandise.
The Exchange has been in existence for 115 years. It partners with the Morale, Welfare and Recreation office on each installation and provides funds to enhance projects that improve the moral of military members and their families. Over the last ten years the Exchange system has provided 2.4 billion dollars toward programs such as youth services, recreation centers, aqua centers, golf courses and arts and crafts programs. The size of the Exchange varies depending on the size of the installation.