Commissary changes coming for Pittsburgh's military, veterans
Store director Wayne K. Trotter at the C.E. Kelly Commissary in Oakdale. The commissary, opened in 1958, is planning to move to Moon.
Store director Wayne K. Trotter in the C.E. Kelly Commissary in Oakdale. In fiscal 2011, the commissary reported sales of $6.3 million.
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Few stores in the region can claim to have started life as a storage barn.
That's the heritage of the Charles E. Kelly commissary, a grocery store for military personnel that is shoehorned into a battered, beige building with an Oakdale address. Opened in 1962 to serve a U.S. Army support facility on a former Nike missile site, the commissary kept serving the same customers, even as the base itself moved away to Moon several years ago.
Shoppers, many decked out in caps and jackets marked for the different military services, last week pushed carts through aisles that once were so narrow they had one-way arrows, and then into different rooms converted to retail from storage. Discounted bananas gone a bit brown can be found in one cubby, while a backroom was piled with seasonal finds such as frozen turkeys and cans of pumpkin pie.
A sign at the checkout proclaimed, "Military in uniform may go to the head of the line." Nobody even gets inside the front door without showing proper military ID to the employee seated on a stool.
Store director Wayne K. Trotter, who has worked at the commissary for a decade, pointed out the 93 percent lean ground beef at $2.75 a pound and family packs of Delmonico steaks at $6.59 a pound. A box of six 14.5-ounce cans of Del Monte sweet peas was selling for $3.99.
Mr. Trotter, who kept stopping to say hello to regulars, said more than a few of his customers like their little store that's almost a secret find, off the beaten track and open only to an exclusive clientele.
But the old store's days are numbered. A bigger, fancier commissary is under construction in Moon, a project pushed doggedly for years by elected officials that prevented the retail operation -- which serves retired and active military from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia -- from being shut down altogether.
There's also some uncertainty looming over the future of the entire defense commissary system, a network of almost 250 grocery stores operated across the U.S. and on bases around the world.
If Congress doesn't act to avoid defense cuts included in the so-called "fiscal cliff" deal, the store could be immediately impacted, but the commissary has long-term concerns as well. Not long ago, the Congressional Budget Office suggested converting the commissary structure so it would no longer receive appropriated funds. The proposal also looked at consolidating the system with the separate network of military exchanges that sell clothing, appliances and other general merchandise -- there's one such exchange not far from the C.E. Kelly commissary.
Whether any of that will happen is a battle still to be fought, but the Defense Commissary Agency, based in Fort Lee, Va., is moving ahead with efforts to assure its stores can serve the original mission of providing service people with merchandise sold at cost, plus a 5 percent surcharge to cover overhead.
"We buy groceries at cost," noted John Spaur, manager of Zone 23, which covers several commissaries in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York and New Jersey. "We cannot sell them for anything but cost."
The agency, he said, is mandated by Congress to provide at least a 30 percent savings for its customers. In some areas, like meat and produce, he said the savings are higher.
The entire system reported $6.09 billion in sales in fiscal 2012, up 2.27 percent over the previous year. Commissaries run by the agency range from a tiny one at Camp Kure in Japan, which Mr. Spaur said serves fewer than 30 Army families and has three employees, to a San Diego commissary that covers 75,000 square feet and has rows of checkout lanes.
C.E. Kelly is one of the system's smaller commissaries, although it will grow with the move from the current 9,000-square-foot building into a new 43,000-square-foot structure with room to add a bakery and deli. In fiscal 2011, the commissary reported sales of $6.3 million.
Estimates put more than 160,000 eligible shoppers -- a group that includes active and reserve military, retirees with enough service and certain family members -- within a 50-mile radius of the commissary. The next-nearest stores are in Carlisle, Cumberland County, and near Dayton, Ohio.
The C.E. Kelly commissary's current customer base is dominated by retirees and veterans, although the move is expected to make it a more convenient stop for active military.
But with an explosion of retail options that are often much closer to people's homes, it's not enough just to have consistently good deals on an overall basket of goods. This fall, the commissary agency introduced a rewards card to connect users with vendor promotions, and it's looking at other changes, such as system to allow customers to place orders online and then pick the groceries up at the curb.
Mr. Spaur said chains like Wal-Mart and Costco compete for sales to military families but the private businesses have different options in running their stores, such as deeply discounting some items to bring in customers who will then fill their carts with other items sold at a profit. "We do not utilize loss leaders. That's illegal for us," he said.
He knows his customers keep close track of their pennies, because they ask about those deals. An agency report in June said it had ranked among the top 10 grocery retailers in coupon redemptions for several years.
The commissary agency's strict parameters include restrictions that even keep employees from shopping there unless they have the right military qualifications.
Mr. Spaur believes there are other differences that affect how a grocery meant to serve the Armed Forces works. Military paychecks go out on the first and the 15th of each month, meaning the commissaries must be stocked up for the crush of business. Pricing on items comes from the vendors and automatically changes when they send updated versions through.
Since commissaries are generally far apart, customers sometimes try to combine several chores at once. They might line up a health appointment, then shop at the exchange and then head over for groceries. They've got coolers ready in the trunk.
"Their last stop is the commissary, and they pantry load," Mr. Spaur said.
First Published November 11, 2012 12:00 am