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Does the Commissary REALLY Save You 30.5 Percent?

A new study conducted by the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) found that shoppers save an average of 30.5 percent when using the commissary instead of other grocery sources.

The study compared the prices of 37,000 products with UPC symbols at 30 randomly selected stateside commissary stores with prices at surrounding grocers — both traditional ones like Safeway or Publix and non-traditional ones like Sam’s Club or Dollar General. They found that, on average, those items were 30.5 percent cheaper at the commissary during the study period.

Whether or not the commissary actually saves shoppers money is a constant source of debate among our readers. When I was working on my Military.com story on the subject, I asked our SpouseBuzz Facebook fans for their thoughts — and the page erupted with opinions.

Like many of those commenters, you may be thinking “OK, the commissary saves me money, but 30.5 percent? I don’t know about that.”.

And that’s why we have to look at exactly how DeCA officials arrived at this 30.5 percent number. Here’s the breakdown:

– This comparison only looks at products with UPC symbols. That means, DeCA officials confirmed, that they are not comparing the prices on any store packaged meat. So the steaks or ground beef you regularly buy that really are so much less expensive at the commissary (and the focus of the meat rush that occurred on Shutdown Day in October) aren’t even considered in this study.

– The study is done stateside. One Facebook commenter told us she really did feel like she saved 30.5 percent when living overseas but not stateside. But this study doesn’t even look at OCONUS pricing.

– The study only examines products both stores carry. One of the most common things I hear from those trying to save money between the commissary and other stores is that buying generic at, say, Wal-Mart is always cheaper. While “always” may be a bit of a stretch (sometimes the commissary drops it’s prices for a certain period on any given product), they do have a point. But because this study only compares products that both stores carry, it does not capture any potential savings you could get by going generic at Wal-Mart.

The study DOES factor in both the 5 percent surcharge and any sales tax at civilian retailers near the randomly selected test stores. Many readers complain that the 5 percent surcharge on their total order is the deal breaker for them, especially if they live in an area where food is not taxed off base. This study takes that into account when reaching the 30.5 percent savings number.

(P.S. If you’re wondering what that surcharge does, exactly, you can read about that over here).

– The study does NOT factor in the voluntary bagger tip. Commissary patrons also complain that after they tip the bagger — a non-required but generally accepted practice — their savings have disappeared. This study does not factor in that cost.

So, if officials were to add in the savings commissary shoppers already know they see from meat and the savings they already know they DON’T have thanks to the availability of generic brands elsewhere and to include the voluntary-but-likely bagger cost, would they still arrive at an average 30.5 percent savings? There’s really no way to know without actually doing the study over again.

But tell us, what do you find?

About Amy Bushatz

Amy is the managing editor of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is an Associate Editor. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on NPR and in the New York Times. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.

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