Civilians Call Them Grocery Stores

Tara Crooks
Limitless Contributor

Civilians call them grocery stores. To those of us in the military, they are commissaries. Looking back to our first duty station and my first introduction to the DeCA (Defense Commissary Agency) - what a change from what I was used to on the civilian side. Commissaries are very odd in that there is almost a code of etiquette that goes with them. We've talked a bit about how to save at the commissary here on the USAA Military Spouse Community before, but I don't know if we have ever really dug deep into what we need to know about DeCA.


Most of us already know that you must be an authorized shopper. Commissary personnel cannot allow you to shop unless you have Department of Defense ID that authorizes commissary privileges, so you cannot forget your ID card.


Commissaries are non-profit organizations. By law, commissaries are required to sell goods at prices that are set at a level to recover the cost of goods, with no profit built into these prices. This explains why they sometimes might seem "boring" when it comes to display, or, for instance, why they cannot "price slash" below cost to create a low price "image." There is also a required, Congress-mandated surcharge to pay for commissary construction, equipment, and continually improved facilities. The amount of surcharge applied to a commissary sale transaction is shown as "SCG" on your sales receipt.


DeCA proudly boasts a 30% annual savings over your typical local grocery store bill. Like your grocery store, commissaries accept most types of coupons in accordance with the terms and conditions stated on a coupon to make items even more affordable. Commissaries located in foreign overseas areas accept coupons up to six months after the expiration date stated on a coupon. Commissaries also accept Internet or home-printed coupons provided they meet their requirements.


But wait; there is even another opportunity for cost cutting. Commissaries quite frequently have events called Case Lot Sales where you can purchase goods at an even greater discount.


Just recently, I was at my local commissary and noticed that they did not carry something I usually buy locally at Wal-Mart. I did not want to make another trip so I thought I would ask if they would ever get it in. Turns out they take special orders. You only need to contact a member of management and request a certain item (by UPC code) be carried. If you are not sure of the UPC code, bring the empty box with you. They can tell you instantly if the item is on the authorized list.


Last but not least the most commonly discussed "difference" between commissaries and civilian grocery stores - the commissary baggers. Baggers are not government or commissary employees and are paid solely by the tips that commissary patrons offer in exchange for bagging/carryout services. Baggers are self-employed and work under a license agreement with the installation commander. Each commissary has a "head bagger" who coordinates and oversees bagger activities. Baggers work for tips only, however, you may choose not to use bagger/carryout services at all, or you may choose to use the services of a bagger but not provide a tip. The rule of thumb for tips is 25 cents per bag. A popular question is; when two baggers take on the same order, who do you tip? The answer is to tip the one that takes the bags to your car. The other bagger quickly steps in and continues with the next customer.


Here are some final tips to help ease your commissary experience:


  • Commissaries restock every night but Sunday
  • Do not shop on the day before, the day of, or the day after payday
  • Shop on Wednesdays (that is the least busy day of most commissaries)
  • Shop mid day not early morning and not after 5pm - these are the busiest times
  • Organize your shopping list with the flow of the store, your time spent in the store will be less



Doug Nordman
I shopped my first commissary in 1979, and the thumbrule for tipping baggers back then was also 25 cents/bag. The consumer price index has risen more than 200% over the last three decades, but I'm pretty sure that today's groceries still take up about the same volume. For the more analytical among us (guilty!), do today's fabric bags hold more or less than their paper predecessors? I know that they look smaller, but you can pack them fuller than paper without having to worry about the weight. 25 cents per bag doesn't seem quite fair, does it? Add to that the fact that some baggers aren't exactly superstars, and some customers aren't very good tippers. Baggers have to pool their tips, so it also seems unfair to penalize all the baggers for these issues as well. Have any of you readers recently been commissary baggers? How did your take-home tips compare to minimum wage? It's better than cleaning movie theaters (or McDonald's bathrooms) but is it better than restocking Costco? Personally, a few years ago we started tipping 4% of the bill. That evoked a very positive reaction among the baggers ("Hey, he's a big tipper!") so I knew we were on the right track. It's about the same volume of groceries every trip, although once in a while the bill is higher for meat or gifts of coffee & macdamia nuts to our Mainland friends. Maybe someday the commissary will update their own guidance...
shameon DECA
New Member
I refuse to tip baggers, I equate it to feeding Pidgeons. I think it's disgusting that DECA continues to get people to show up to work as slave laborers. I usually avoid the commissary altogether because I find the prices high and the quality low on produce and meat (only bulk and processed items are really more inexpensive there and they can be purchased on the most seldom of trips.) I try to bag my own groceries and take them out to my car because I know I won't be tipping, but the baggers get mean and pushy if you do it yourself. altogether makes for a very unpleasant experience.
H Howard
I give them $5. Their really nice and helpful and it's worth the money since I have 3 kids and only 2 hands.
New Member
All baggers are not created equal. We had one that openly said to not put too much in each bag as more bags get a higher tip. She was training a new bagged. She received 25¢ from me...and some advice to not try to pad her tip. I also let the Commisary Manager know.
Tara Crooks
Limitless Contributor
WOW it is very clear from the amount of comments I must have hit a HOT topic on this one! Who knew it would be the commissary? I have done a comparison (call it personal research?) over a three month period of our grocery buying Walmart vs. Commissary here at Fort Sill and found it VERY beneficial to shop the Commissary for our family. Maybe it depends on how and what you buy. I will readily admit I hit up SAMS for produce and when I can I buy hamburger at BRAUMS b/c it just tastes better. But when it comes to name brand boxed items the commissary almost always wins unless Walmart is having some large sale OR you buy off brand. The bagging tip "rule of thumb" was actually provided by the commissary in an interview I did with DeCA. I know we typically spend $200.00 when we go and we tip $5-6. I have yet to get a bad bagger or have anyone inadequately bag my groceries. I consider it a valued service as by the time we get to the end of our shopping (me and two kids in tow) the last thing I want to do is bag my groceries and I love the fact they load them for me while I get the girls situated in the car. Like I said, maybe it's a personal choice. We all must do what is best for our family. The numbers don't lie though - the commissary is on average more affordable than civilian shopping.
New Member
I LOVE shopping at the Commissary. I call it the "Secret Store" because not just anybody can get in, my husband gets a kick out of my nickname for it. The nearest Commissary is about 30 miles from my house, so I only go about once every couple of months or so. I stock up on the items I enjoy and items I can't find anywhere else, like my favorite brand of Kona Coffee; and I always find the prices to be lower than my local grocery store, especially dairy prices. I ofter tip baggers $5.00, but if it's hot out or they were especially good spirited, I'll give them $10 or $20.
better than PIE
New Member
Well, I have never had a terrible experience at the commissary, but being in different locations seems to make a difference. I never knew they pooled tips- that seems unfair, because I do tip higher for better service- just like in a restaurant. And I LOVE the commissary! I shop there and boycott mall-mart. I love that I know the prices are fair and the meat guys will cut excess fat off meat and dig up dog bones. Because we are military and the commissaries benefit the military I always go there first. Yaaaaeh for benefits!
Tara Crooks
Limitless Contributor
I didn't know they pooled tips either and I can't seem to verify that anywhere. I wonder if it depends on location? I'm not sure. But I am with you, I tip better for better service (and personable service). Ps. I LOVE that you said "dig up dog bones" this is one of my favorite features at the commissary but so personal I didn't add it in the story. My dogs love it when they get that sort of treat!