American military commissaries, the “supermarkets to the military” across the globe, reached their 148th anniversary on July 1.
On that day in 1867, Congress authorized the Army to begin selling, at cost, food items — called “commissary goods” to soldiers of all ranks. This landmark event began the modern era of retail food sales taking place on military installations.
Military commissaries today little resemble the warehouses that doubled as sales stores in 1867, but there are key similarities. For example, commissaries still sell food at cost to officers and enlisted alike, providing a savings benefit that promotes readiness and encourages retention in the armed services.
“Throughout history, commissaries transformed right alongside the military, evolving from a counter in subsistence storehouses to former stables to old airplane hangars to vacant warehouses to the modern facilities you see today,” said Joseph H. Jeu, director and CEO of the Defense Commissary Agency. “A constant amid this evolution has been delivering a benefit for service members and their families who’ve earned it.”
In addition to the savings military families receive on their commissary purchases, the benefit also provides an indirect support to patrons of nearly $250 million annually. This support is due in large part to the commissary’s relationship with industry partners — its vendors, suppliers and brokers —responsible for store support, military-only coupons, contributions to installations, promotions and giveaways, and scholarships for military children.
The modern-day benefit began after the Civil War. Then, many soldiers were poorly served by sutlers, licensed vendors who often overcharged or provided poor-quality goods. After the war, Congress decided that enlisted men should receive the same shopping privileges officers had already enjoyed for four decades and extended the benefit to all ranks.
The first stock list, approved in 1868, consisted of 82 items, most of which were canned goods. This product selection was similar to the stock lists of contemporary civilian general stores. Eventually, the sales function moved from storehouses to separate buildings, first known as “commissary sales stores” and, later, to “sales commissaries.”
Civilian post traders, who had been permitted to sell anything commissaries did not carry, were abolished in 1893, and the modern exchange system took their place in 1895. To this day, the commissaries and exchanges are separate organizations, with different funding sources.
The first overseas commissaries opened in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898-99. After the Navy and Marine Corps opened their first commissary sales stores in 1910, personnel from any service could patronize any commissary run by the other armed services.
When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, it inherited its commissaries from the Army. Each service ran its own stores, first at installation level and later through an agency.
Since 1879, commissaries have used various customer surcharges to help the stores pay for transport, spoilage or construction costs.
From 1879-1882, a 10 percent charge was levied on all goods except tobacco. In the 1920s, the stores used a surcharge that varied by location. In 1952, Congress established what has become a permanent surcharge, initially at 3 percent, but in 1983 it was increased to 5 percent. The surcharge is primarily used to cover facility construction and renovation costs.
The list of eligible shoppers has expanded since 1867. Retired officers became eligible in 1879 and retired enlisted men in 1914. All spouses and family members were shopping by the 1930s, although some received the benefit earlier in many locations.
In 1991, to improve efficiency and increase taxpayer savings, Congress and the Department of Defense created the Defense Commissary Agency by consolidating the military services’ separate retail grocery operations. Since then, customer savings have increased from 25 to an average of 30 percent.
Members of the National Guard and Reserve always had partial shopping privileges — essentially, during brief periods of active duty service; but in 2004, in recognition of their vital contributions to the nation’s defense, their increasing duties and extended deployments, National Guard and Reserve personnel were authorized full commissary benefits.
The number of items stocked by commissaries has also increased from the 82 sold in 1868 to the 22,500 items available in the commissary’s largest stores today. “With a legacy of 148 years behind us, we remain committed to providing a valuable commissary benefit to military members, retirees and their families that is cost effective and operationally efficient,” Jeu said. “Whether it’s the 19th century or the 21st century, we exist to serve our patrons.”