Second Lt. Alec Kinczewski checks out at the Camp Red Cloud commissary Friday. The soda he's buying costs twice as much at the post shoppette.

Second Lt. Alec Kinczewski checks out at the Camp Red Cloud commissary Friday. The soda he's buying costs twice as much at the post shoppette. (Erik Slavin / S&S)

The signs dotting the shelves at the Dragon Hill Lodge AAFES shoppette tell customers to “Just Compare, we save you money … every day!”

Stars and Stripes took the Army and Air Force Exchange Service up on the request to compare and picked 25 items sold both at commissaries and AAFES stores in South Korea.

The results were clear: Every item but one was cheaper at the Yongsan Garrison and Camp Casey commissaries than they were at the nearby AAFES stores.

The total price for the 25 items (see chart) was 24 percent cheaper at the commissary when including sale prices and 21 percent cheaper at regular prices.

Commissaries are run by the Defense Commissary Agency.

Some items, such as a 20-ounce plastic bottle of Pepsi, are 100 percent more expensive at AAFES stores.

Army officials acknowledged AAFES’ convenience and its large contributions to Morale, Recreation and Welfare program. However, they questioned whether that justified a 100 percent hike on a product.

“We just need to re-educate our soldiers on where the better deal is for their grocery shopping,” Brig. Gen. John Johnson, 2nd Infantry Division assistant division commander, stated in an e-mail.

Despite the absence of any other onbase comparisons, AAFES officials say their stores shouldn’t be compared with DECA’s commissaries.

“These two commands are not meant to compete against each other, but, instead, are designed to complement one another,” said AAFES Dallas-based spokesman Judd Anstey in an e-mail response.

However, some servicemembers say they do compare prices between AAFES and DECA.

The commissary stands about 100 yards from a shoppette and post exchange at Camp Casey, and soldiers like Chief Warrant Officer Carlo Davis don’t see why the same products can cost so much more at AAFES stores.

“I’ve been crying about that for 35 months,” said Davis, who is to leave his 210th Fires Brigade post soon.

Many soldiers don’t have much choice but to pay higher prices, Davis said.

Camp Casey’s size and rules prohibiting its soldiers from driving their own vehicles make commissary trips inconvenient.

“If you live on one end of post, it’s a lot of trouble to take a taxi or walk over,” Davis said.

It’s even more difficult at Camp Hovey, which is connected to Camp Casey but lies at least 4 or 5 miles away from the commissary.

Buses run regularly throughout camps Casey and Hovey, but it’s cumbersome to drag groceries on the bus, soldiers said.

“It would be more convenient to have a commissary for those of us on Hovey,” said Pvt. Dan Stockman, of the 1st Brigade Special Troops Battalion.

A group of Hovey soldiers outside the shoppette recently expressed surprise the prices were so different.

However, Stockman and some others said they can accept some higher prices knowing that the proceeds go to MWR programs. AAFES spent $228 million on MWR activities last year.

But Davis still wondered if those higher prices go too far.

“Maybe they can get funding somewhere else besides hyping up the prices at the shoppette,” Davis said.

Facts and figures

¶ DECA (Defense Commissary Agency) formed in 1995 to consolidate worldwide commissary operations that trace their origins back to 1868.¶ Exchange stores were first ordered for bases in 1895, culminating in the creation of the Army Exchange Service in 1941. Soon after the Air Force was created in 1947, AES became AAFES.

What they sell¶ Commissaries offer groceries but do not sell alcohol.¶ AAFES operates shoppettes selling typical convenience store items — including alcohol — as well as post and base exchanges that operate like department stores. AAFES also operates fast-food stores.

Pricing¶ AAFES prices don’t have a fixed markup but instead are calculated using “market-based factors,” spokesman Judd Anstey said. It means a 20-ounce soda a customer buys in a U.S. shoppette may not cost the same in Europe, Mideast or Pacific theaters.“The price of the bottle in Washington, D.C., would be based on the local market, while the bottles (overseas) would be based on a range of sale prices in the United States,” Anstey said. AAFES doesn’t raise prices to cover costs of operating in remote locations, Anstey added.¶ Commissaries have sold their goods at a congressionally mandated cost-plus-5-percent surcharge since 1983, according to its Web site. Butchered meats and produce can vary based on market prices, but managers must lower prices if profits are too high. Managers have discretion over special and sale prices.

Funding¶ AAFES’ gross sales revenue from its 3,100 stores worldwide in 2006 was $8.9 billion, Anstey said. About 96 percent of AAFES’ operating budget comes from nonappropriated funds. The annual appropriated funds AAFES receives pay for military employee salaries, overseas shipping and overseas utilities. AAFES also uses its earnings to fund new stores and renovate existing stores.¶ DECA did not respond to queries for 2006 financial data. But DECA earned $5.37 billion in sales, according to their 2005 annual report, available online. The agency ran about 265 stores as of October 2006. DECA received appropriated government funding for procurement, construction and operations, according to its 2005 annual report. It uses its surcharge to pay for new stores and renovations.

Where the money goes¶ AAFES sent two-thirds, or $228 million, of its $355 million in net earnings to Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs for fiscal 2006, Anstey said. That included $138 million to the Army, $76.5 million to the Air Force, $13.3 million to the Marine Corps and $500,000 to the Navy.The Navy Exchange, not AAFES, generally runs stores on Navy bases, though AAFES operates at small Navy installations on Okinawa.¶ DECA does not fund MWR programs. It does participate in scholarship programs funded by food brokers and manufacturers, according to its Web site.

— Erik Slavin

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