DeCA decks the shelves
Published: December 14, 2010
You may not know Stephen Armbruster, but if your family is stationed in Europe, he is wondering whether you’ll eat turkey or ham for Christmas. In fact, he’s been thinking about it all year.
He’s interested in your holiday dinner, because as the marketing branch chief for the Defense Commissary Agency, Europe, he ordered 1.2 million pounds of turkey and a quarter million pounds of ham – back in February.
“For the turkey it’s unfortunate, but those things are raised for this particular time of year, so we have to let (suppliers) know in February what our requirements are going to be.” Armbruster said.
“You can never know who’s going to eat turkey or whose going to decide to have a rib roast this year and who’s going to go for ham,” he said. “We try to order so we can feel pretty confident there’s plenty for everybody.”
Armbruster was one of several DeCA Europe officials who spoke to me from their headquarters in Kaiserslautern, Germany, about how commissaries keep their shelves stocked at the holidays and all year long.
Decisions about how much and what goods to buy are affected by buying history, military operations, even celebrities.
“Oprah Winfrey could do a cocktail on her show with cranberries, and before you know it … cranberries are going out the door like you wouldn’t believe,” Armbruster said.
“We try to keep a sense of what’s happening in the environment.”
That includes more vital concerns like deployments, said Victor Claar, DeCA Europe’s logistics chief, because those affect family eating habits
“Mom – or dad, depending on who’s home – doesn’t cook the same when the deployed service member is gone,” Claar said.
Some families return to the U.S. during deployment, which also affects shopping trends, he said.
Other influences are less predictable: A coup in Madagascar, a tsunami in Asia, an Icelandic volcano. Each can impact the availability of groceries in overseas commissaries.
“If we under-order something, I can kick myself. If we over-order, I can do the same, but it’s those things you really have no power over that can sure keep you up at night for weeks at a time,” said Armbruster.
Like “visions of sugarplums” with a twist, DeCA officials might lie awake worrying about getting more than 75,000 boxes of holiday goodies across the ocean.
“For me it’s high seas on the North Atlantic,” said Claar, “jostling some ships around and maybe … the 9,000 (40-foot) containers we ship to Europe every year.”
“It does operate very well most of the time,” Claar said, “but some things you just can’t control.”
So with one eye on the weather, another on community events, a finger on the pulse of popular trends, a few more calculating warehouse space and expiration dates of canned yams, does the commissary have time for questions like “Why are the marshmallows stuck together?”
“Yes,” said DeCA Europe’s deputy director Cheryl Conner, “because those little things mean the most when you’re so far from home.”
The commissary has both online and in-store feedback forms, but the best way to get answers is to speak directly to the store manager, said Mike Yaksich, DeCA Europe’s director of operations and a former store manager.
“We’d like to think that we satisfy most of our customers,” said DeCA Europe Director, Mike Dowling, “Sometimes we just can’t get the items people would like to see, but we do our best to satisfy as many people as we can across the board.”
For more commissary information – and the answer to my marshmallow question – see the blog post below