ECN CoverE&C Commissary News

Editorial Comment — August 2015

Bring Back the Wow! — Now!

A few years ago, Walmart asked shoppers if they wanted nice, clean, wide aisles. Not surprisingly, they said, “Yes, of course, who doesn’t?!”

So the mega-chain cleared the aisles of sundry fixtures packed with deals … and promptly lost $1.85 billion. For Walmart, it was a small hit, but a sharp reminder of how what looked like a foolproof 90-degree turn toward customer satisfaction instead thwarted the customers’ main reasons for shopping the stores in the first place.

Off-shelf displays and promotions returned.

Sadly, some commissaries, even those with vast expanses of open real estate between some sections, have recently been cleared of strategically placed mass displays, shippers, fixtures and other deals — the very stuff that has long made commissaries a fun treasure hunt and the place to go for bargains.

These special set-ups scream out recognizable deals and savings to customers — and they are part of what has made commissaries tick, part of the unique connection the stores have traditionally made with their patrons.

That’s not all. These opportunities in the aisle contribute much to the savings equation as a major portion of the shopper’s impulse purchases. Recent surveys indicate that as many as 90 percent of shoppers buy items that weren’t on their shopping lists; some estimate as much as 40 percent of the total register tape represents impulse buys. And off-shelf options provide the key to supplier promotional dollars that reduce the patron’s price.

Military shoppers have always looked for and enjoyed being able to taste-test and try new items — they’re no different from their civilian counterparts in that regard — that’s the sort of thing that draws them in and keeps them coming back.

Seemingly random displays may conflict with some contemporary notions of brand image and high-end retailing; and clean aisles may definitely look more shipshape, crisp and satisfying, like a sharply pressed uniform; but last time we checked, commissaries were not Apple stores; and they are not parade grounds, either. They are where military customers come — or used to come — for the best deals.

It hurts to see sales go out the door and out the gate. Nearby dollar stores and discounters promote incessantly, and financially wary customers often migrate to where they think the biggest savings are. DeCA is not immune to this migration, and some in this market are asking whether the recent dip in sales that has coincided with DeCA’s “clean and clear aisles” push isn’t at least in part the result of a well-intentioned dress-right order that backfired.

We certainly cannot fault anyone for trying a new or different approach, but when you strip away the sizzle, you often fail to sell the steak.

It would make sense to turn back the clock, go back to retail basics and fill the aisles with excitement: end-aisle and off-shelf displays, racks, shippers, pallet drops, dump bins, demos and samples, decorations, signage, store dressing … in-your-face and at-your-fingertips reminders of the savings available in the store.

We understand that DeCA is grappling with other important day-to-day challenges as well, such as a difficult spate of “vendor cuts” that seem to hit commissaries harder than supermarkets; challenges in distributor deliveries; ordering glitches, hiring problems … and the age-old bugaboo of empty shelves — or quickly emptying shelves — on payday.

More than ever, DeCA needs to get together with industry to figure out exactly where the pain points are. The bar is higher now, and the sooner the issues are resolved the better, before someone else convinces defense resale decision-makers they have a better plan.

There’s no excuse for repeating the well-publicized mistakes of commercial retailers; and it’s not too late to emulate the Walmart solution. All it would take is a bit of give-and-take with industry, and a Notice to the Trade.

Bring back the deals, bring back the displays, bring back the specials and bring back the patrons!

To receive your own advance copy of the EandC News editorial each month,