One of the busiest supermarkets in the world is posting a “going out of business” sign on its doors and telling thousands of happy, loyal customers to go elsewhere.
The Army’s Cameron Station, a sprawling supply facility and cut-rate grocery store for the military in this Washington suburb, is one of 34 bases slated to be closed under a Defense Department cost-cutting plan announced in December.
A Pentagon commission said 120-year-old Cameron Station was “old and inefficient” and should be shut down to save taxpayers $13.3 million a year.
Unless Congress takes the unlikely step of overruling the Pentagon, the Cameron Station commissary will be closed in the next few years despite nearly $31 million in annual sales last year.
Envy of the Giants
Receipts like that make Cameron Station the envy of the supermarket giants. And it’s only open during the day, five days a week.
When the station is closed, its grocery business probably will shift not far away to the mammoth commissary at Ft. Belvoir, Va., the king of the Army’s 178 worldwide commissaries, with $64.3 million in sales last year.
The supermarket chains keep their sales figures a closely guarded secret. But Food World, a reliable industry journal, estimates that the average Giant Food store in the Washington metropolitan area, by comparison, posted $18.5 million in annual sales as of last May. The figure for the other major chain, Safeway Stores, was $11.4 million.
As many as 40,000 customers, most of them military retirees, push their loaded shopping carts past 18 checkout counters at Cameron Station every month.
The store boasts everything its civilian competitors offer, except for alcoholic beverages, automotive accessories, a jewelry and cosmetics counter or a pharmacy.
Draw Is Cheaper Prices
“Cheaper prices--that’s our big draw,” says Len Langford, the civilian assistant manager at Cameron Station, and his customers agree.
They say the commissary’s low prices save them 25% to 30% of the checkout counter tab at Giant or Safeway, the two biggest supermarkets on the outside.
With a current operating subsidy of $743 million from Congress, the commissaries sell everything at cost, plus a 5% surcharge to cover overhead expenses.
Altogether, the 431 military commissaries racked up $5.2 billion in worldwide sales last year, making them the seventh-largest grocery chain in the country. The estimated $1.8-billion difference between commissary and supermarkets prices is regarded as a pay supplement for military families.
Langford said his shoppers drive here from throughout Washington and its Maryland and Virginia suburbs to load up on bargains. “One guy and his wife drive all the way from upstate New York near the Canadian border to shop here every six months,” he said.
“I’ve been going to the commissary all my life,” said Betty Tychsen, wife of a retired Air Force colonel who loaded a dozen grocery bags of bargains into the trunk of her car at the Cameron Station parking lot.
Checkout Lines a Plus
“It’s close to my home, the produce is good, and I seem to get through the checkout lines quickly,” she said. “We get everything we need here, and my husband says we save 20% by shopping here.”
“I’m going to miss it,” said Cosy Schneberger, wife of a Navy commander at the Pentagon who hits Cameron Station every three weeks to stock up. “You can find most everything you want. I hope they do something to take care of everyone when they close.”
In the parking lot at Ft. Belvoir, Lance Cpl. James Pearson of Billings, Mont., a 24-year-old with a wife and baby, drives 30 miles both ways from his home on the Marine base at Quantico, Va., to shop for commissary bargains.
Pearson says the commissary is a lifesaver on his paycheck of $382 every two weeks. He figures that the $120 worth of groceries they buy at Ft. Belvoir every payday would cost an additional $75 if they shopped elsewhere.