You know right away when you step onto a military base. Helicopters might hover in formation. The workers wear uniforms rather than business attire. You might pass rows of tanks or hear military drills underway. And if you need to buy a gallon of milk or a roll of tape, you'll probably head to the military commissary. Commissaries are the military’s version of grocery stores. But shopping at a military commissary is a little different than buying goods at your local Wal-Mart, Kroger, Safeway, Publix, or Acme.

But don't think that just because you've retired, you have to stay away. Military retirees retain their eligibility to shop at the military commissary on bases anywhere in the world. The military commissary is also geared to support the specific and unique needs of enlisted members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, as well as their families, civilian workers on base, and others.

From your days in the military, you'll probably recall that the experience of shopping at a military commissary is not different than any other store. But there are ways to get the most out of shopping on base. We've explored the history, purpose, structure, and rules of the road, and have compiled this guide for everything you need to know about the commissary.

History of the Military Commissary

The commissary is almost as old as the military itself, with origins dating back to 1825. Initially, the benefit was available only to Army officers, who could purchase items for themselves. The government extended eligibility to family members about a decade and a half later. The commissary opened to all enlisted Army personnel in 1867. That same year, the military also expanded the program to open all commissary warehouses to retail operations.

According to the military, the first commissaries offered a list of about 82 items for sale. Today, the number is closer to 12,000. Over time, the eligibility rules for shoppers have changed as well. Now anyone in active duty in any service, as well as the Coast Guard and National Guard, may shop in and buy from the commissary. Any commissary, in fact -- privileges extend to commissary operations anywhere in the world.

International commissaries first launched in China and the Philippines. Then the era of the military commissary spread to the Caribbean and South America. As Congress authorized new services, and those services came online, they followed the Army commissary model. The Navy and Marines Corps came online in 1909 and 1910. The Air Force came along in 1947 and 1948.

Military Commissary 101

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The military commissary is a benefit we as a country provide those who serve in uniform. Military bases are large, sprawling places, covering hundreds of thousands of acres. The largest, Fort Bragg, North Carolina, hosts more than 50,000 military personnel and another 14,000 civilians. Asking those individuals to obtain the services they need from surrounding communities represents a challenge to readiness.

The military commissary exists to save money and time by letting active duty personnel and others shop on base. But as a retiree, you're entitled to the same benefits. It offers various goods for sale at close to wholesale prices. The only extra you pay is a five percent surcharge to cover expenses such as the opening of new commissaries or renovating an existing one. In 2018, the most recent year available, military commissaries did about $5 billion in sales. The stores processed 87 million customer transactions and served an estimated 5.4 million households.

Open to retirees

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The military commissary agency has been gradually opening the doors of the commissary to others. Military retirees may shop in the commissary as long as they have the appropriate military identification. The DoD recognizes, however, that getting around the commissary might not be the easiest task for certain retirees or those who are disabled. To help, you may appoint an agent to shop for you. Contact the commissary closest to you and ask the director there for the right contact to authorize agents. The installation office will provide a letter or other proof that your agent will need to shop for you.

Remember the exchange

The military exchange is a sister program to the military commissary, but they have different missions. The exchange operates to turn a profit. Often, you'll read of the exchanges as being compared to department stores in the civilian world. The military reinvests money made at military exchanges into programs and facilities on the base that benefit military members and their families and build morale. The exchange isn't one single establishment though. It exists to serve a range of needs and may include barbershops, laundry and dry cleaners, gas stations, fast food, and even lawn and garden shops, according to Military OneSource.

Location, location, location

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The Defense Commissary Agency operated about 240 military commissaries as of the fiscal year 2018. The majority are in the continental United States, including the District of Columbia, as well as in Alaska, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia. Internationally, the military commissary structure extends to locations such as Norway, Germany, Japan, South Korea, and other areas where the United States has permanent bases. (There's even a meat processing facility in Germany.) You'll also find a military commissary in places such as the Northern Mariana Islands. The total number of military commissaries has stayed relatively steady over the past few years at right about 240.

Shopper eligibility

Not everyone is eligible to shop at the local military commissary. Under the law, military commissaries are open to active duty members of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, along with members of the National Guard and the Reserve components. Also, the government extends eligibility to military retirees, Medal of Honor recipients, and veterans deemed to have a 100 percent disability. Family members of all of those individuals can also spend money in the commissary. Finally, Department of Defense civilian employees stationed overseas are also eligible.

One important survival note: To cash out at the military commissary, you'll need appropriate military identification. The commissary agency wants to make sure that the cost benefits make it to the people they are targeting. Check with your base administration office if you have any questions about what you'll need to show on site.

Who runs the military commissary?

The Department of Defense Military Commissary Agency, located in Virginia, runs the chain of military commissaries all over the world. Congress provides money to operate the commissaries through the annual Department of Defense budget. That money goes mainly to wages and salaries for the military commissary workforce. Across the globe, according to the DoD 2018 budget request, more than 16,000 people work for military commissaries.

Hours at the commissary will vary. Generally, these stores are open six to seven days per week starting at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. and closing between the hours of 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Click here to find the hours of your local military commissary.

The military commissary agency advises that hours can be adjusted at the local level to accommodate specific needs. So make sure to keep in touch with your store manager to let them know what would make your situation more manageable.

Cost savings

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The Defense Commissary Agency promises to save customers money. But it’s not at a uniform amount. On average, by shopping at the local military commissary, you can save as much as a third off your grocery bill. The savings, however, will vary depending on the region. The level of savings is highest at overseas commissaries, at about 43 percent. For regions in the United States, savings range from 18 to 22 percent.

Path to the discount

The military commissary seeks only to save you money as a member of the military community. They achieve that primarily by selling products at cost: What the military pays for an item is what you’ll pay, plus the surcharge. But the military commissary has also established programs to extend your savings. Take advantage of these, and you can lower your bill even more.

The first is the Rewards Card. These are available at any location worldwide. Once you have it in hand, register the card on the MyCommissary portal and make sure to set up a customer account. Once you log on, you’ll be able to see the discounts available and move them to your account. The savings are triggered once you make your purchase in the military commissary. Read more about how the Rewards Card works here.

According to MilitaryOneSource, the DoD is also rolling out Wi-Fi connectivity in all military commissaries in the United States. This capability will allow you to download coupons even as you shop. Shopping at the military commissary got more comfortable in 2018 with the launch of the agency’s new customer-focused portal. You’ll be able to use this portal to see ahead of time what items are in stock and which may be on sale. You can obtain this information at the Defense Commissary Agency savings center.

Lastly: save money in connection with the military community. For instance, the website mymilitarysavings.com curates available deals in one place. There may be differences concerning the participation of your local military commissary, but at least you'll have the information in one place.

Watch for “case lot” sales

The other significant way to save money is to track when your local military commissary schedules “case lot” or other special sales. For instance, military commissaries in 2018 sponsored special “back to school” sales at many of its locations. These sales usually involve large quantities of items that enable the military commissary agency to offer prices at an even lower rate.

System-wide sales get promoted on the Defense Commissary Agency site. Sometimes deals are local. To track those, keep watch on the website of your own local military commissary. Here's an example of one of those websites. The military's commissary agency recently instituted an everyday-low-price program as well, known as Your Everyday Savings. Learn more about that program here.

Bagger etiquette

Baggers represent one of the main topics of discussion regarding the military commissary. Baggers work at the military commissary for no pay. They rely on tips for their compensation. Although you're not required to tip baggers, baggers appreciate and expect those tips, according to various military bloggers. The commissary won't make you use bagger services. Baggers are not commissary employees but are often military retirees.

So, you may wonder: How much is enough? It depends on various factors, such as the size of your order. One military spouse gives $2 or $3 as a general rule of thumb, extending up to $5 for the larger orders. Other factors may include the time of day and the weather. The better the service, the higher the tip!

Jobs

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As we noted earlier, the military commissary is a significant employer. An estimated 16,000 people worked at military commissaries in the fiscal year 2018. Many if not most of those employees are drawn from the military families who reside on the base. So your spouse or your child, when he or she reaches the age of 16, might find work at the military commissary to support their interests or contribute to your family's welfare. Take note, though: There is no requirement for someone to be in or associated with the military to work at the military commissary. Many of these jobs will be at entry-level, making it perfect for part-timers or a student.

MREs

As all well know, military personnel live a mobile lifestyle and are subject to deployment orders at short notice. On deployments, especially in remote areas, military personnel rely on meals ready-to-eat or “MREs.” Commissaries are positioned to order MREs from the Defense Logistics Agency. Keep your military commissary manager in mind as your needs develop; they can place the order for you.

Checking It Out

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The military commissary has a long and rich history of supporting the needs of soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. These are places that are intended to help you and your family as you serve our country in uniform. While the operation of the commissary is very similar to that of a grocery store, there are significant differences. Arm yourself with these tips, and you can make the most of your military commissary shopping experience.

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