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    Drafted into service

    Defense Commissary Agency deploys first private brands in 25-year history

    By Lawrence Aylward
    Freedom's Choice is the food private brand of the Defense Commissary Agency.

    Randy Chandler was 11-years-old when his father left home in 1967 for a year to fight in the Vietnam War while a member of the Marine Corps. It was a stressful time for Chandler, who wondered if he would ever see his dad again.

    “They sent my father to Vietnam and told him that somebody was going to try and kill him for the next 365 days,” says Chandler, the principal deputy of sales, marketing and policy for the Fort Lee, Va.-based Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA), which operates a worldwide chain of stores providing groceries to military personnel, military retirees and their immediate families.

    Fortunately, Chandler’s father, Rocky, returned home safely a year later and was stationed at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonsville, N.C., where he moved his family. Randy, aware that many of his father’s comrades didn’t return home alive from Vietnam, developed an appreciation for those in the military — a gratefulness that has only deepened as he has grown older.

    Chandler, who has spent nearly 40 years working for military commissaries, is passionate about what he can do through his profession to help those who are serving in the military and those who have served. Through DeCA, he wants military personnel to receive the best food at the best prices at each of the 238 commissaries that are located in 13 countries. And, beginning this year, those products include private brands.

    Last November, following a competitive selection process, DeCA chose Grand Rapids, Mich.-based SpartanNash as its partner to introduce private brands for the first time in its 25-year history. In June, DeCA rolled out the first products — bottled water and kitchen and trash bags — featured in its new Freedom’s Choice (food products) and HomeBase (non-food items) lines. The commissaries also introduced TopCare products including first aid supplies, vitamins, over-the-counter medications and beauty care items. TopCare is a store brand supplied by Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based Topco Associates.

    Chandler is convinced that DeCA’s patrons will embrace the brands. SpartanNash says the products, including everything from beans to rice to cheese to snacks to shelf-stable juice to paper plates, are equivalent in quality and taste to national brands but are sold at a lower cost than brand-name products.

    “We want [our patrons] to view Freedom’s Choice and HomeBase as their brands,” Chandler says. “They have devoted their lives to the military, and these brands are devoted to them. We also hope they embrace the quality and savings made available to them with the TopCare products.”

    Chandler says present and former military personnel have earned their commissary benefit, allowing them to purchase groceries at tremendous savings when compared to commercial stores. Adding store brands will make DeCA’s offerings even more affordable.

    On a recent day, DeCA was selling a 24-pack of Freedom’s Choice bottled water that cost about $2.50 less than the name brand equivalent. But Chandler says it’s not just about offering the lowest prices.

    “When we first set out to choose our private brand partner, we knew we wanted our private brand products to be quality offerings — equal to or better than branded products,” he says.

    Chandler remembers the days when private label meant generic and low quality. Those are two attributes he didn’t want associated with DeCA’s offerings.

    “We were not interested in developing generic offerings for our patrons; we were determined to give them the high quality they deserve,” he stresses.

    Chandler says SpartanNash “showed us their approach and the processes they have in place to ensure the products are quality first.”

    SpartanNash says it applies the same strict quality assurance measures to the DeCA brands that it uses for all of the proprietary brands it offers under its food distribution business.

    “Not all private brands are created equal,” Chandler says. “Our best-in-class quality assurance will provide DeCA’s brands with a quality differentiation that will delight our patrons. Anyone who is not delighted with our Freedom’s Choice or HomeBase products can return the products for a full refund.”

    Disadvantage now an advantage

    At the recently remodeled 82,600-square-foot Fort Belvoir Commissary in Fort Belvoir, Va., DeCA’s new store brands are prominent, including a massive display of the Freedom’s Choice bottled water stacked about 4 feet high.

    DeCA operates 180 commissaries in the U.S., mostly located on military bases. Many shoppers, especially military veterans, will travel many miles to shop at a commissary, including Kevin Robinson, a U.S. Army veteran who works in media relations for DeCA’s corporate communications division. As a customer, Robinson is excited that he will get the chance to purchase the commissary’s private brands.

    “Our research indicated that our customers were already buying private brands at other stores,” Robinson says. “So if we were going to offer them a complete benefit, we needed to have store brands as well.”

    Unlike other commercial stores, DeCA is governed by specific statutes which dictate everything — from how it operates to how it spends its money to what products it can carry. Two recent developments spurred DeCA’s entry into the private brands arena. First, DeCA was previously only allowed to sell name brand products, but the law changed under the National Defense Authorization Act for 2017, allowing DeCA to sell store brands. Second, DeCA learned through surveys that its patrons wanted private brands. Sixty percent of patrons said they purchased private brands at other retailers and would welcome DeCA selling them.

    A ‘complete solution’

    DeCA conducted an extensive search for a partner with rich experience in developing and executing a private brands program. DeCA received about 45 proposals when it solicited companies to supply private brands, including from SpartanNash.

    Chandler and the other DeCA officials were impressed by the SpartanNash proposal because SpartanNash offered a complete solution for private brand product ideation, sourcing and distribution. DeCA also liked that SpartanNash would be able to distribute product. MDV, SpartanNash — a SpartanNash subsidiary — has been distributing to the military resale system for more than 25 years. Chandler says he was also impressed by SpartanNash’s commitment to develop the DeCA brands and bring them to the shelves faster than normal.

    Jason Cunningham, senior product development manager at SpartanNash, has been on site at Fort Lee and working closely with the DeCA team to help implement the program. Cunningham believes DeCA was at a disadvantage by not offering private brands. He notes that DeCA patrons were able to purchase private brands at other retailers for a lower cost than they were paying for the national brands at DeCA, despite the deep commissary discount.

    “Now [patrons] can buy private brands that are equal to or better than the national brands right at their own commissary,” Cunningham adds.

    The names Freedom’s Choice and HomeBase were selected for the store brands by commissary customers who voted from a list of names compiled by DeCA, with input from DeCA employees and SpartanNash. While DeCA wanted the names to have a military theme, it was conscious of not coming up with names that were overtly military.

    Robinson, who served 21 years in the Army, believes Freedom’s Choice and HomeBase “identify with who we are.”

    “Freedom’s Choice defines what the U.S. military does — defend freedom,” he says. “HomeBase resonates with me because these are products I need around the house like garbage bags, paper plates and paper towels. Our commissary brands are part of an overall benefit that delivers a slice of home for our military – even if they’re stationed overseas.”

    No coconut water just yet

    DeCA is rolling out its store brands program slowly, partly because it has to make room on store shelves for HomeBase, Freedom’s Choice and the TopCare line. It aims to have about 800 SKUs of HomeBase and Freedom’s Choice on the shelves by the end of the year and up to 2,000 SKUs by the end of 2018, in addition to the more than 2,000 TopCare SKUs.

    “If you look at other retailers today, they have had a head start on DeCA,” Cunningham says. “They have been building their private brand offerings for decades. We can’t go from 0 to 100 miles per hour overnight. This is a process. We have to build traffic. We have to build brand equity. We want to have a best-in-class private brand program where the commissary patrons enjoy quality products that are equal to or better than national brands at a significant cost savings.”

    Organic and natural/free-from products will come, as will premium and exclusive store brands as the program evolves. The goal now is to introduce quality products slowly and to maintain them.

    “There is a present-day level of savings that has been calculated that the commissaries provide to the patrons,” Cunningham says. “And we need to maintain that level of savings. If we can’t provide the level of savings that is necessary at the quality we want, then we won’t bring the product out. We don’t want to put a product on the shelf that is not high quality.”

    A better benefit

    Chandler hopes HomeBase and Freedom’s Choice become the go-to brands at the commissaries.

    “We want patrons to come here to get our store brands because they know they can’t get them anywhere else,” he adds.

    Chandler reiterates that having great store brands is akin to great service, which retired and active military personnel deserve unequivocally. Chandler has fond memories when his family shopped at the commissary during his father’s military tenure.

    “I know the commissary meant a lot to our family,” he says. “And that’s what drives me every day to help deliver value to our patrons.” 

    Aylward, editor-in-chief of Store Brands, can be reached at [email protected].

    By Lawrence Aylward
    • About Lawrence Aylward Aylward is editor in chief of Store Brands.

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