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Military retailers seek key to luring shoppers back

Jun. 16, 2011 - 01:19PM   |   Last Updated: Jun. 16, 2011 - 01:19PM  |  
Exchanges and commisisaries are fighting an uphill battle to bring in customers amid mounting pressure from retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and Target, which are building emotional ties with military shoppers by donating to and supporting the military community in high-profile ways.
Exchanges and commisisaries are fighting an uphill battle to bring in customers amid mounting pressure from retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and Target, which are building emotional ties with military shoppers by donating to and supporting the military community in high-profile ways. (Kevin Gaddie / Air Force)
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No other retailer cares more about or does more for troops and their families than commissaries and exchanges, military retailers say.

But they are fighting an uphill battle to get that message across amid mounting pressure from retailers such as Walmart, Home Depot and Target, which are building emotional ties with military shoppers by donating to and supporting the military community in high-profile ways.

For years, military retailers have seen big-box discount stores setting up outside military installations. About 70 percent of troops and families live off base, and about 60 percent of authorized shoppers do not shop at military stores. But now, military retailers see a newly emerging appeal to military shoppers.

"We've allowed other companies and other organizations to position themselves in the hearts and minds of our military community," said Cindy Whitman Lacy, chief operating officer of the Marine Corps Exchange, at the recent American Logistics Association commissary meeting in Norfolk, Va. "We've allowed them to market to our military community that they actually do more, and perhaps … care more."

Several commercial retailers are involved in the Joining Forces initiative launched by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. The initiative encourages Americans to support military families.

As part of a tour highlighting community support for military families, the two recently attended a baby shower at Camp Lejeune, N.C., for expectant mothers. Whitman Lacy noted that Obama and Biden gave the mothers gift certificates for cribs at Pier 1 Imports and for diapers and baby formula at Walmart or grocery stores outside the gate.

The local commissary and exchange, and their industry partners, were not included.

Many Joining Forces initiatives are already embedded within the military resale community but aren't communicated effectively, Whitman Lacy said. In addition to customer discounts and hundreds of millions of dollars of contributions to morale, welfare and recreation programs, the military resale system hires many military family members, and its industry partners contribute millions of dollars to scholarships for military children and other causes.

"Why would an installation commander go outside the gate to a retailer to sponsor an event and bypass the entire infrastructure of the military resale program on the base?" said Patrick Nixon, ALA president and former director of the Defense Commissary Agency.

These concerns could result in even more benefits for troops and families.

Nixon suggested that perhaps a new, broad, "enticing" messaging strategy is needed to draw shoppers back to the base.

"Just talking about how much money we give back to the community doesn't create an emotional bond," Whitman Lacy added.

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