This is an excerpt from the October issue of Produce Retailer. For the full version, visit

The bottom line for the Defense Commissary Agency is a profit beyond dollars and cents.

The 2012 Produce Retailer of the Year provides an essential benefit to active and retired military personnel with 247 locations and 18,000 employees worldwide. DeCA Commissaries, a part of the Department of Defense, have been around for more than 150 years. In that time they’ve grown far beyond essentials.

The agency’s focus is delivering a “21st Century Commissary Benefit” to the military community, says Kate Reeb, vice president of sales for Los Angeles-based Coast Produce Co., a DeCA produce contractor. Produce Retailer names DeCA its 2012 Retailer of the Year

“It is so much more than delivering fresh fruits and vegetables to the commissaries,” Reeb says. “It is about supplying the best quality, the best prices, with the best service for the people who give so much for our country’s freedom.”

Produce is supplied through contractors, who provide merchandising support and help build relationships with the grower-shipper-marketer community.

“We love working with DeCA because they are willing to try new things, new items and will build a nice display to get the product in front of their customers,” says Chuck Sinks, vice president of sales for Yakima, Wash.-based Sage Fruit Co. “Whenever we have a contest with DeCA, we get great support and they build fantastic displays.”

Those creative displays translate to sales. Howard Nager, vice president of sales for Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers says he’s seen double-digit sales growth from innovative displays and cross-promotions through DeCA programs.

“They love the opportunity to get creative,” Nager says.

And that creativity and dedication is often recognized in the industry. To date, seven DeCA produce managers have been selected for the United Fresh Produce Association Retail Produce Manager Awards, one of whom was selected as a grand prize winner, says Victoria Backer, senior vice president of member services for the Washington, D.C.-based association.

Commissaries play a special role in ensuring access to high-quality fruits and vegetables for military families, Backer says.

“This is evident in the pride and passion the past winners have showcased,” she says. “Not only do they build beautifully merchandised displays that wow their customers, they also play an active role in helping their communities.”

DeCA’s produce operations are challenged to keep shoppers coming in for more, says Bridget Bennett, category manager for produce sales, marketing and policy.

“Our philosophy of a full, fresh and customer-ready department is significant for our store personnel because they are keenly aware our produce departments are an integral part of determining future shopping trips,” Bennett says. “We strive to remain relevant and reliable for our customers by delivering them a 21st century commissary benefit.”

Bennett, who has worked with DeCA for the past 23 years including the past 11 years in produce, took time with Produce Retailer Editor Pamela Riemenschneider to talk about the agency’s produce mission.

What makes each DeCA location unique?

B.B: Our produce associates at each commissary do an outstanding job of ensuring our stores are stocked with the items our customers want. Personal touches in merchandising can be found all around. We have different footprints and equipment in some of our stores, and sometimes the flow of the department is different. However, our produce departments are fresh and colorful, setting the tone for a great shopping experience.

What is DeCA’s mission when it comes to your fresh produce programs?

B.B: We strive to provide the military community with fresh, high-quality produce at the best possible prices. Today’s consumer is more health conscious, and we want to make it easy for our customers to select a quick snack while learning to incorporate more fresh fruits and vegetables into their lifestyle.

What makes DeCA stores different than a typical grocery store?

B.B: As a component of the Department of Defense, DeCA’s established customer savings mandate is 30%. DeCA’s produce operations operate similar to other retail produce departments with a slightly different set of rules and a different mission: DeCA exists solely to provide a worldwide benefit and thus we buy and sell products at cost.

DeCA is also source of employment for family members of those service members who routinely relocate, for military retirees, and for some guard and reserve members. Over 60% of our employees are affiliated with the military community. As a military spouse myself, I realized the importance of the commissary benefit at a young age. When I became a DeCA employee, it became so much more. Commissary employees have a sense of pride in their place of business, as well as knowing we “serve the most deserving” — our nation’s service members, their families and retirees.

DeCA produce departments are well known for their innovative displays. How does the organization foster that creativity?

B.B: Our produce teams are passionate and love the competition, as well as the incentive to take home the grand prize.

DeCA’s produce personnel also get tremendous support from an extended team of industry partners, and together they are able to accomplish some incredible merchandising. The displays that the field team creates are awesome and are worthy to compete against any I have ever seen. Produce is an impulse buy, and the excitement created by our eye-popping merchandising displays is a direct link to a lift in sales, whether focusing on a particular item or an entire commodity.