Bianchi shares goals for commissaries with industry partners

FORT LEE — The Defense Commissary Agency and its industry partners met recently at agency headquarters at Fort Lee to discuss opportunities to better serve military members and their families.

During what was billed as Industry Day, DeCA’s interim director and CEO, Robert J. Bianchi, emphasized to the agency’s industry partners – vendors, suppliers and brokers – that the military customer is the tie that binds them.

“We’re all in this together, and I think we all have a common goal here – to serve our military members and their families,” said Bianchi, a retired Navy rear admiral, who is also dual-hatted as the chief executive of the Navy Exchange Service Command (NEXCOM).

“We’ve got to focus on the customer,” he added. “We’ve got to get back to being relevant to them. We want strategic initiatives that help drive sales, protect margins and the benefit, and deliver value to the patron.”

Those initiatives include maintaining 98 percent product availability, increasing customer satisfaction during their journey through the store and maintaining the savings benefit, among other things.

Bianchi has also begun exploring more joint sales promotions, which led to DeCA hosting a conference of military resale marketing representatives in February. This first-of-its-kind meeting was a huge success, he said, resulting in the development of eight joint promotional events between the military exchanges and the commissary in 2018.

Bianchi’s initial efforts toward increased commissary and exchange promotions began last December, when DeCA and the NEX piloted a “bounce back” coupon promotion at eight co-located stores. At those eight stores, customers who spent over $50 at the commissary received a coupon worth $5 off $25 in items purchased at the accompanying NEX.

“I wanted to see if we could do two things: bring customers back to the commissary and also see if it would translate to sales at the NEX,” Bianchi said.

During the week-long promotion, those eight stores rang up almost 60,000 transactions over $50. The NEX saw a 10 percent coupon redemption rate, and the commissaries gained new customers.

“When we ran the numbers, we found that 3 percent of customers hadn’t shopped in a commissary in a year and nearly 6 percent hadn’t shopped in three to four months,” Bianchi said. “The program was a success. We got customers to come back to shop the commissary. Now that I have these new customers in our commissary stores, I have to keep them. And to keep them we will have to do what I would call a reset.”

Resetting the agency includes technological updates that give DeCA new abilities and insights into pricing, planograms, store resets and customer buying patterns, allowing its sales team to maximize savings for customers. The updates will also assist the team in achieving the agency’s goal of 98 percent product availability.

Other things DeCA is focusing on include introducing a natural and organic commissary store brand, increasing the agency’s presence on social media channels and improving the agency’s ability to measure customer feedback in real time.

Since taking the reins of the commissary agency in November, Bianchi has personally reached out to installation commanders to determine what their communities want from their commissary. From that engagement came the bagger-less checkout lane initiative that’s being piloted at 121 commissaries worldwide.

“We have given our customers three options now,” he said. “They can go through the self-checkout, a bagger-less lane or have their groceries bagged for them.

“These are the things that I think will draw customers back to us,” Bianchi said to the industry reps. “They are wins for everyone involved, even more so for the customer because they are saving their hard-earned money.”

Bianchi is also focusing on maintaining baseline patron savings. He told the group to expect to see more coordinated themed promotions with other military resale activities, like the bounce back commissary and NEX coupon and MILITARY STAR card promotions. STAR card usage in commissaries is on the rise. To date, the card has been used for almost $80 million in transactions.

Other initiatives include introducing a savings campaign, adding new products in commissary store brand product lines, focusing on natural and organic products, and applying customer-first principles throughout the agency.

Ultimately, Bianchi wanted to reaffirm with DeCA’s industry partners the agency’s commitment to joint business planning that can better serve the military customer.

“Good ideas are always welcome,” Bianchi said. “If there are good ideas out there, I’m willing to listen. We will work together to get it up and running, and we will all succeed together.”