When you are new to military life, the commissary can be a bit intimidating, especially if you are shopping without your service member. It’s a grocery store, but not exactly. There are some written and unwritten rules that run the commissary.
Here are 10 tips to make your commissary shopping experience a pleasant one.
10 Tips for New Commissary Shoppers
1. Always Bring Singles
The very friendly people bagging your groceries work for tips and tips only. Their take-home pay is based on your generosity and goodwill. If you just have a few bags, drop a buck or two in the wooden box or glass jar. If the bagger has packed many bags, takes them to your car and stows them in the trunk, give a bigger tip please!
2. Clip Coupons
The prices at the commissary are already below the out-in-town shops’ prices, but coupons should not be neglected. Grab the flyers at the front of the store and pull out a few before you shop. Or plan in advance with the Sunday coupon inserts or weekly circulars.
Even if you use coupons occasionally, you can still score big savings on staples like cereal, diapers and snacks.
3. Military Coupons
Throughout all commissaries are special military-only coupons. These deals are often even better than the manufacturer coupons distributed to the general public. Plus, the discount window tends to be longer, giving you more time to stock up.
4. Pay Day
Service members get paid on the same 2 days each month. Like clockwork. If you value your sanity, avoid shopping at your commissary on those days. Go a few days before or a few days after.
The 1st and the 15th are not days you want to “just run in real quick for some milk.”
5. Case Lot Sales
A few times a year, most commissaries will close a section of their parking lots for case lot sales. A case lot sale is the perfect time to stock up on toilet paper, paper towels, canned goods and bulk snack items for hungry kids. Almost everything is even cheaper than normal and there are often coupons that give you an even bigger price cut.
6. Checkout Etiquette
In civilian grocery stores you just find the register with the shortest line and go there. In the commissary there is one giant line that funnels to the registers. It makes sure that each check-out is not overwhelmed with people and that baggers all get equal amounts of work.
On your first trip, don’t be that person who cuts the line. Join the big queue and bring something to entertain the kids (and you) while you wait.
7. Restocking Day
This might vary slightly from base to base. Generally there is 1 day a week that the whole store is restocked. Find out when this day is and shop on that day. By sticking to restocking day for shopping, you will get fresher veggies and produce. You will also get first grab for new items or popular things that go fast at your commissary.
8. Holiday Feasting
If you like a big turkey for your holiday meal, it is better to scope it out early than to wait until the last minute. Since these big ticket items are considerably less than civilian grocery stores, holiday foods tend to go fast. This means that you might not find a turkey the week of Thanksgiving. It’s better to clear some freezer space in late October than to be caught without one later.
9. Item Requests and Suggestions
Food is changing. Americans are eating very different things than they were even 5 years ago. Just look at the explosion of gluten-free and organic products!
You can contact the procurement or department manager too. Often, if a regular distributor carries the product you want, it will show up in stores. Then send a thank you note or email.
There are also comment boxes near the management office of every commissary. If someone went above and beyond, or you liked a particular item, write it down and put it in the box. This is the only way that each store knows what is going right and what needs to be corrected.
10. Time to Shop
This varies based on where you are. Many locations, particularly northern Virginia and southern California, have a huge military retiree population with commissary privileges. This group tends to shop in the late mornings on weekdays. If you are OK with moving a little slower and navigating around motorized carts, this might be a good time for you.
Many families with working parents shop on Saturdays or after church on Sundays. The store will be crowded and full of kids. Also, stores don’t restock on weekends, so this is a prime time for something to run out.
The best way to figure this out is to hit your local commissary on a few different days and times. Find out what works best for your shopping style and stick with it.