I’ll admit, I was a skeptic on the savings the commissary provides. I thought off-post stores would take the edge over the commissary, because while each offers its own off-brand, the commissary only sells name-brand products. As the Washington Post wrote, the commissary is “stocked with seemingly every brand of every food product available in America.”
And it is true; the commissary offers the same variety of brands of ketchup as Walmart — five to be specific — but could the discount of the Great Value store brand be enough to pull civilian stores into the lead for budget shopping?
I compiled a list of 15 items I thought the average family might buy on a weekly basis. I thought back to the meals I ate as a child, asked some parents and came up with a list, which included the ingredients for a spaghetti dinner, turkey sandwiches, breakfast and paper products. It’s by no means a complete shopping list, but certainly these are items families could utilize in a week.
To incorporate store brands, I bought the cheapest item available for the same quantity. I always bought 16 slices of cheese, 1 pound of ground beef and a four-roll pack of toilet paper. The only item that was hard to cross-reference was peanut butter. I bought a 13-ounce jar of Peter Pan brand peanut butter for $1.99 at the commissary, but the size wasn’t available at either civilian store. Both Walmart and H-E-B had store brand 18-ounce jars of peanut butter for $2.34 — at Walmart the Great Value 14-ounce jar was the same price as the 18-ounce one.
My first shopping trip on Friday was to the commissary on Clear Creek Road. I went early in the morning; it wasn’t too crowded and everything seemed to be in stock. The cheapest mayonnaise available also had a $1 off coupon on the jar, so I used it at the check-out. My total after the 5 percent surcharge was $26.36. A squadron from 3rd Cavalry Regiment was fundraising that day, so I did tip a couple of dollars to the soldier who helped with my groceries, but carryout is not mandatory.
I then visited Walmart in Killeen. A manager shopped with me, and it was a good thing, too. Many of the prices of items were hard to locate or missing.
There is no military discount at Walmart; however, the company does offer programs for veterans, including a pledge to hire 100,000 veterans by 2015, said Dianna Gee, a Walmart spokesperson.
“As of today, we’ve received over 20,000 applications since the national program kicked off on Memorial Day,” she said. “We’re working to process the applications as quickly as possible. So far we’ve hired 1,700 new veteran associates in a little over three weeks.”
The Walmart Foundation also has a five-year plan, announced in 2010, committing $10 million to support veteran employment and transition opportunities. On Aug. 31, 2011, Walmart U.S. President Bill Simon announced an increase to $20 million over five years.
At the end of the shopping trip, my total at Walmart ended up being $30.53 — or 13.7 percent higher than the commissary. There were no coupons in the store.
“Our goal is to have the best overall price on a customer’s basket, and we’re confident customers will save more at Walmart on their regular shopping list,” said Molly Philhours, a spokeswoman for Walmart’s pricing. “Anytime there’s an environment with high-low retailers, we may be beat on the price of an item because of a sale. In that rare case, our Ad Match Guarantee allows for an easy price match of any local competitor’s ad for an identical product, right at the cash register.”
My final stop on Friday was the H-E-B on Trimmier Road in Killeen. During the trip, I found two in-store coupons available. Just like the commissary, a $1 off coupon was stuck on the Kraft mayonnaise jar, and another $1 off coupon was available for the lunchmeat I bought. The same Oscar Mayer turkey was the cheapest at each store, and Nancy O’Nell, spokesperson for Defense Commissary Agency, said this same coupon was available at the front of the commissary.
H-E-B does not offer a military discount, but in speaking with an H-E-B spokeswoman for Central Texas stores, Leslie Sweet, I learned this company also has a pledge to hire more veterans, as well as the “H-E-B Operation Appreciation” campaign to provide housing in 2014 for a veteran in each of the five regions H-E-B operates in.
Shoppers can contribute to the nonprofit, Operation Finally Home, by purchasing patriotic, reusable shopping bags in stores since Memorial Day. For each $1.50 bag, 10 percent goes back to the organization. Former III Corps and Fort Hood commander, retired Lt. Gen. Rick Lynch. consulted with H-E-B on the campaign.
At the end of the shopping trip, I spent $28.78, or 8.4 percent higher than the commissary. I actually would have spent more at H-E-B than Walmart, had it not been for the two in-store coupons.
Overall, if you are looking to just run in, shop and get out, it seemed the commissary might be the best bet for military families. Meat and produce were by far lower priced. But, for those who don’t mind shopping at a variety of stores, it’s clear there are better deals out there and the store brands are sometimes less expensive — especially on items such as peanut butter and bread.