It's all about finding out what customers want, says Debra Melton, manager at the Baumholder PowerZone.

It's all about finding out what customers want, says Debra Melton, manager at the Baumholder PowerZone. (Terry Boyd / S&S)

BAUMHOLDER, Germany — The return of 13,000 1st Armored Division soldiers from 15 months in Iraq has already produced an economic resurgence.

This resurgence — after more than a year of empty bases — is just the beginning, say Army and Air Force Exchange Service executives. Extra money soldiers earned in Iraq will continue to flow into AAFES and the surrounding communities through Christmas.

Anticipating a flood of soldiers and a tidal wave of money, stores on 1st AD bases were on the highest possible alert: Code Christmas.

“I came up from Ramstein — and I’ve seen Christmas at Ramstein,” said Debra Melton, Baumholder’s PowerZone manager, alluding to the giant Air Force base just south of Baumholder. “This was [bigger] than Christmas at Ramstein or Christmas at any retail place.”

Sales boomed at first when 1st AD soldiers returned, then flattened out as most went on 30-day block leave, said Gary W. Burton, AAFES regional general manager, Kaiserslautern Military Community.

When they return from leave, sales will pick up through the fall, Burton said. That second boom will reach bases near 1st AD bases, such as Ramstein and Kaiserslautern, where shoppers from Baumholder often travel to use the larger base exchanges/post exchanges, bookstores and other retail outlets.

Consumers typically start thinking about Christmas shopping in October, and Burton anticipates soldiers, after spending the 2003 holiday season in Iraq, will view 2004 as special — and splurge a bit on gifts.

That’s the obvious part. Far more subtle retail strategies and management went into preparing stores.

Preparations for the return of money-laden soldiers and officers began months beforehand, and the BX and PowerZone stores soldiers left in April and May of 2003 were not the stores they came back to 15 months later.

Countless details went into getting retail operations from military uniform sales to barbershops ready for the crush of business, AAFES executive say.

Baumholder’s Post Exchange brought in an extra $2 million in inventory. PowerZone employees piled up merchandise, such as surround-sound systems, and big sellers, such as 65-inch JVC televisions, in the aisles just as they do at Christmas, said Gary Pasvogel, Baumholder’s main AAFES store manager.

In a way, say AAFES employees and executives, it’s easier anticipating what returning soldiers would want — electronics and other big-ticket items — than stocking the basics troops may not even realize they need until they need it, such as ironing boards and irons, ashtrays and garbage can liners.

Tracking buying patterns in order to have the stock customers want “is more an art than a science,” Burton said. AAFES executives even looked at downrange purchasing habits in order to judge what kinds of demand were already satisfied.

Baumholder also was able to draw on sales data collected at other exchanges that had been through redeployments, such as the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s return to Vicenza, Italy, Pasvogel said.

One of the biggest challenges was staffing.

Pasvogel was able to get permission from Lt. Col. Todd Buchs, 222nd Base Support Battalion commander, to bring up nine Bosnian workers from the Eagle Base exchange.

“Without them, we couldn’t have kept this place running,” Pasvogel said.

Iraq deployments land more money in paychecks

In Iraq, soldiers and officers earn substantially more than their base pay, with bonuses and incentives often doubling earnings. This extra earning power is driving spending sprees at bases and towns where 1st Armored Division troops are returning after 15 months in Iraq.

For example, an Army sergeant, or pay grade Enlisted 5, with five years of service earns a basic pay of $1,991 per month, which is tax free while in a war zone.

During the Iraq deployment, that sergeant received an extra:

• $100 per month in hardship duty pay.• $225 per month for 12 months in hostile fire pay.• $250 per month for 12 months in family separation allowance.• $1,000 per month for three months after the division was extended in March.

The extension pay includes $200 in hardship duty pay (above the $100 already being paid) and $800 in assignment incentive pay.

If that sergeant re-enlists between March 18 and Sept. 18 — agreeing to another deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan or Kuwait — he or she could get up to $5,000, paid retroactively. This is separate from any re-enlistment based on military occupation skills, or MOS.

So, the sergeant could come back from 15 months of deployment with more than $11,000 in extra pay, in addition to the $35,838 he or she would have earned in base pay, and more than $16,000 extra pay with re-enlistment.

— Stars and Stripes

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