Why are some shelves empty?

Commissaries face daunting challenges

By J.M. Simpson on May 26, 2022

It has been one year since Bill Moore, director and CEO of the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), stated in Feb. 2022 DeCA press release that the agency's is to be, "The grocery provider of choice for our eligible patrons - delivering a vital benefit exclusively for our military community and their families."

In the aftermath of the pandemic with its disrupted supply chains and rising rate of inflation, he faces the daunting challenge of putting goods on shelves at reasonable prices.

"Moving forward and by adjusting our focus, we will work harder with our industry partners to ensure we have a steady distribution of product and the personnel available to get it onto our shelves, providing great customer service as well."

In other words, Moore knows of the frustration that many commissary shoppers feel. He also understands how a supply chain works and its impact on prices. 

"A successful supply chain is to deliver the right products, in the right quantity, at the right place, at the right time and with the right price," said Chaodong Han, a professor of Business Analytics & Technology Management at Towson University in a Feb. 2022 article.

"Normally, manufacturers procure raw materials from their upstream suppliers, produce finished products, move products to distribution centers and retailers and, finally, to customers through last-mile deliveries."

But how does this help commissary customers, some of whom are discouraged by what they find - or don't find - on the shelves?

On Jan. 14, 2022 Payton Leigh Perez, an overseas commissary customer wrote on the DeCA Facebook page that her store had been empty of meat, dairy, cheese, butter, infant formula and other items for several months.

"The commissary is an entitlement to support the military and their families, which we rely upon dearly. This is unacceptable," she concluded.

While pandemic-related inflation and supply chain problems have driven prices up, data shows that one result is that many active-duty families face food insecurity issues.

"In my view, the real food insecurity issue with the military right now is making sure we get sufficient quantities into the stores so people can shop," said Steve Rossetti, president of the American Logistics Association, the organization that represents manufacturers of products sold in commissaries, in a January 2022 Military Times article. 

In light of this situation, Kevin Robinson, the lead spokesperson for DeCA, has asked that overseas and stateside commissary customers be patient, that the stores are often restocked the next day.

"We want our customers to know we are doing everything we can, and more, to get the products they need onto their store shelves, especially to our overseas commissaries," he said in a February 2022 DeCA press release.

But why the emphasis on overseas commissaries over stateside commissaries? The answer lies in the fact that longer lead times are needed to ship items overseas as opposed to the shorter times to fill shelves in stateside commissaries.

"Right now, the flow of products to our stores overseas is below preferred levels, but it is flowing," Robinson added.

He then explained that both overseas and stateside commissary customers face empty shelves and rising prices because of a shortage of raw materials (cardboard, aluminum and plastic), 12 to 15 percent employee vacancies, a constricted job market, and that manufacturers have stopped production of a large number of items to focus on a few key brands.

Due to the current challenges facing stateside commissaries in the near term, the average overall fill rate of most products is about 55 percent, which means that if commissary officials ordered 100 cases of a product, they will receive about 55 cases.

"As the strain is being felt across all of our stores, our store directors, zone managers and our area officials have been engaged with installation leadership teams to keep them apprised of our efforts to keep much-needed products on our store shelves," concluded Robinson.