As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to change traditional military training schedules, anything that brings some sort of reliability and comfort can be a welcome reprieve.
The Army & Air Force Exchange Service personal shopper program has become a dependable source for quarantined Soldiers and civilians at Fort Bliss—a program that’s been in progress for nearly a year.
Since March, all incoming and departing units have been required to quarantine as part of the COVID-19 mitigation protocols. This measure has prevented troops from leaving their barracks to pick up their own basic necessities.
That’s where the personal shopper program steps in by providing online shopping catalog options to quarantined personnel via email or phone. Once shopping lists are submitted, they’re routed to a dedicated staff of AAFES associates who call each customer to review their list and process payments. Depending on the influx of emails, items are typically packed and delivered within a 24-hour time frame.
“When you’re quarantined and unable to go anywhere, sometimes you just need a small piece of home,” said main post Exchange manager Pat Tinker. “I’ve been deployed and know how it feels not being able to get those familiar things to help ease the day. Small gestures make a difference and we get to take care of our Soldiers who take care of us.”
AAFES general manager Michael Brennan said he’s watched the program evolve from three designated quarantine buildings located on west Bliss into a full-scale operation supporting Doña Ana, McGregor, and Westbrook training sites, in addition to designated buildings throughout the installation. To date, more than 22,000 orders have been delivered—making it the largest personal shopping program in the Army.
“We never charge any type of delivery fee and there’s no minimum purchase,” said Brennan. “AAFES is here to help take care of their basic needs. We’re all they have out there, and it’s up to us to do our part.”
Shopping orders can include bags of chips, energy drinks, military clothing items, toiletries, laptops, luggage, and electronics. If something’s not readily available, associates will find comparable items or check inventories at other military stores.
“There’s really no set category on the types of requests that come into the store,” said McGregor Troop Store manager Tina Bretz. She recalled a Soldier requesting yarn to complete a crochet project. After reaching out to other stores and making countless calls she finally found the “right material.”
“A week after delivering that Soldier’s supplies we received a photo of the finished project….a blanket,” said Bretz, adding that there’s so many moving pieces that go into packing the right items, and she’s grateful to team members for making the program work.
“These are challenging times for all of us right now, but this program really reminds us that it’s the everyday things, and seeing people smile that will help us get through it,” she said.