The night silhouette of the main entrance to the Freedom Crossing shopping center at Fort Bliss, Texas, 2012. Opened in 2010, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service shopping and entertainment complex was the first of its kind on an Army or Air Force installation. AAFES helps to fund family support and recreational services on Army and Air Force installations.
The night silhouette of the main entrance to the Freedom Crossing shopping center at Fort Bliss, Texas, 2012. Opened in 2010, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service shopping and entertainment complex was the first of its kind on an Army or Air Force installation. AAFES helps to fund family support and recreational services on Army and Air Force installations. (Photo Credit: Terrance Bell) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT LEE, Va. (May 14, 2021) -– Some military community members were likely surprised by the recent DOD policy change that opened Army and Air Force Exchange Service shopping privileges to government civilians as of May 1. (Read more about it at army.mil/article/245809.)

Don’t presume, however, that the military retailer is in dire straits – necessitating the additional customer base to stay afloat. Truth is, the Exchange Service has nearly doubled its profitability since 2011, according to the latest figures available on its website. There is no indication exchanges will be supplanted anytime soon by the big box behemoths lurking beyond the gates.

AAFES has overseen retail establishments – ranging from permanent facilities on military installations around the world to mobile kiosks wherever troops are deployed – for more than 125 years. (An interactive history presentation is available at publicaffairs-sme.com/Community/history.)

Unlike the days of yore, though, it operates in an unpredictable market that bobs and weaves like a dancing Santa. Big retail names like Sears, Kmart and J.C. Penny have felt the weight of an undeniable premise – those who are slow to adapt or cannot fulfill customer needs get crushed.

The Exchange service, it seems, aspires to be more than a flattened piece of metal lying in the roadway. It has positioned itself as a shopping entity that serves more than active duty military, retirees and their families. On Veterans Day in 2017, it opened online ordering through ShopMyExchange.com to all prior service members with an honorable discharge. In January 2020, all veterans with service-connected disabilities were welcomed back to its customer base.

Now, government civilians with a common access card (excluding contractors) can shop there although they are prohibited from purchasing military uniforms or tobacco or alcohol products. AAFES Director and CEO Tom Shull assured customers earlier this month that Exchange stores have sufficient capacity and merchandise quantities to handle the additional patronage.

Expanding exchange access seems prudent, considering the number of core customers has been dwindling for decades. The active duty military strength has gone from more than 780,000 in 1985 to 480,000 in 2020. Add to that the explosive growth of online retail; the unpredictability of new shopping trends; and fierce competition from traditional brick-and-mortar stores. There are many challenges hovering over AAFES’ horizon.

To better secure its future, AAFES is continuing a full-court press toward better-informed shoppers. Too many are oblivious to the fact that exchange profits are funneled back into military communities. All of the $369 million it made in 2019 was reinvested – funding recreation centers, intramural sports programs, skate parks, golf courses, theaters, auto craft shops, bowling alleys, equipment for fitness centers and much more.

Those Whoppers consumed at Burger King during lunchtime – convenient because the customer didn’t need to leave the installation – come courtesy of AAFES, one of the largest BK franchisees in the world. Hungry lunch crowds at Fort Lee also are benefitting from a food scene that has vastly expanded in the last five years with big-name additions like Qdoba, Panda Express, Starbucks, Jimmy John’s subs and Tropical Smoothie café.

Also provided to military communities courtesy of AAFES are military clothing alteration and sales stores, barber and beauty shops, optometry services and concessionaires hawking memorabilia and unique home decorative items. Let’s not overlook the reduced-price meals military children receive at DOD schools overseas either – a little known investment from the retail giant.

Need more? AAFES employs more than 44,500 veterans and military spouses. It has hired more than 1,600 wounded warriors. Retail positions are even made available to active duty military members wanting to work second jobs.

In the family support arena, AAFES contributes to a long list of services such as financial counseling, relocation and employment assistance, survivor outreach, youth sports, daycare centers, child abuse education and the Exceptional Family Member Program. Those using these services too often fail to appreciate the investment that makes them available.

Knowing this, readers will hopefully recognize the importance of AAFES to an installation’s economic ecosystem. It is the lifeblood of military communities – the bank, corner store, restaurant and retailer rolled into one. Indirectly, AAFES allows military members to confidently perform their duties without the added burden of worrying about the wellbeing of families back home. Congress structured AAFES that way – to not only provide military installations a sustainable source of funding but also some measure of fiscal control.

How do community members exercise the power granted them?

They can start by patronizing AAFES services as much as possible. Each dollar spent strengthens the installation infrastructure, empowering communities to maintain and improve social and recreational services, and therefore, quality of life. Furthermore, refrain from being merely a shopper and consumer. Take ownership. Chart a course of engagement. Be a voice to influence decisions affecting AAFES services and those of its beneficiaries.

Granted, not all community members favor exchanges or their offerings. Some may think there is “more bang for the buck” at malls or elsewhere. There’s not – at least from a return-on-the-dollar perspective. The well-documented track record of AAFES is irrefutable. They’re nothing like the big-box behemoths outside the gate that are beholden to their own corporate interests.

The oft-spoken AAFES theme “Family Serving Family” should be planted in military shoppers’ minds. It appropriately describes how the organization embraces its fiduciary responsibility to the community and customers it services.

Thus, community members should not be troubled by customer expansions at AAFES. Military installations only stand to gain from the influx of additional patrons, who by the way, are also individuals who have either contributed to or are now ensuring the nation’s defense.