Friday, August 28, 2009

Military Exchanges

Exchanges are the military’s version of department stores. Soldiers call it a PX, for post exchange. Airmen say BX, for base exchange. Sailors call it a ship’s store when afloat and NEX when in port; Marines say MCX; to a Coast Guardsman, it’s CGX.

In addition to their brick-and-mortar stores, exchanges sell to authorized customers via retail stores, catalog and online at the Exchange Online Store.

Exchanges sell brand-name goods from civilian companies, as well as their own private-label items. There is no sales tax, and prices usually are lower than commercial retail prices.

There are four exchange systems:

* Some 400 stores of varying sizes at 100 Navy installations around the world are run by the Navy Exchange Service Command, based in Virginia Beach, Va.

* The Marine Corps Exchange system operates 17 Marine Corps exchanges with a total of 170 resale facilities and reports to the Corps’ Personal and Family Readiness Division at Quantico, Va.

* Coast Guard stores are run by the Coast Guard Headquarters’ Exchange and Morale Division in Washington. In addition to land-based stores, the Navy and Coast Guard run floating ship’s stores, stocked largely with toiletries and snack foods, uniforms, CDs and CD players.

AAFESArmy and Air Force stores are run by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, based in Dallas. AAFES is the oldest and largest of the exchange systems, with more than 3,100 facilities, including 147 main stores, in more than 30 countries.

AAFES and the Marine Corps Exchanges also support military personnel deployed to the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones and elsewhere through three increasing levels of Tactical Exchange Support: AAFES Imprest Fund Activities, Tactical Field Exchanges and Direct Operation Exchanges.

Active-duty Marines and Marine Corps civilian employees deploy to run the Marine exchanges in the war zones.

At any given time, more than 450 AAFES associates are voluntarily deployed in support of these contingency operations. The stock assortment found in these exchanges varies from location to location, but even the most basic operation provides access to toiletries, phone cards and cold drinks.

Exchanges not only support themselves almost completely through their sales income, but all earnings generated from sales are ultimately returned to the customer. For example, about three-fourths of NEX profits are paid to Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation programs, while the remainder is used to build new stores or renovate existing NEX facilities at no expense to U.S. taxpayers.

Academic rewards. Exchanges offer rewards such as savings bonds and coupons for student achievement. See local exchanges for details.

BXMarts. Some installations have combined commissary and exchange stores called BXMarts, NEXMarts or CXMarts. Food is priced as commissary items — at cost plus a 5 percent surcharge added at the check-out counter. Other items carry exchange prices, with variable markups.

Eligible shoppers. Eligible shoppers include all ranks of active-duty, retired, National Guard and Reserve members and their families, some disabled veterans and their families, surviving spouses and former spouses. Limits or restrictions may apply. Check with local exchanges. Those eligible can shop at any exchange, regardless of service affiliation.

Employees. Exchange employees are paid from exchange revenue, not with taxpayer dollars. The exchanges also seek to hire military spouses, with hiring preference programs, and programs to help them continue their careers with the exchange when they relocate.

The 10,688 active-duty military family members working for AAFES now account for nearly a quarter of all the military command’s employees, making it one of the largest employers of military family members.

Like other Defense Department employers, AAFES, MCX and NEX give employment preference to military spouses and family members. The exchanges’ reinstatement programs help military families when they move by allowing eligible associates to compete with current associates for in-house jobs.

Gift cards. The exchanges sell gift cards in their stores and through their online catalogs.

NEX, AAFES and MCX-specific gift cards now can be redeemed at any Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps Exchange facility.

AAFES offers a program, “Gifts from the Homefront,” under which any American, even those who aren’t authorized customers, can buy gift cards for donation to deployed troops, who can use the cards to shop at exchanges in the theater of operation.

The lightweight, flexible gift cards make it easy for troops to pick up items normally included in a traditional care package at exchange stores throughout the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones.

Anyone can send a “Gift from the Homefront” by logging onto http://www or calling (877) 770-4438. From there, the gift certificates may be sent to an individual service member designated by the purchaser, or distributed to “any service member” through the Air Force Aid Society, American Red Cross, Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, Fisher House, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Operation Homefront, Operation Interdependence, Soldier & Family Assistance Center, USA Cares or USO.

Mail order. Exchange items can be purchased through the Exchange Catalog, available to all service members. The two “big book” catalogs, released in spring and fall, are $5, but include $30 in coupons. Individual exchanges also offer specialty catalogs for uniform items, furniture and other needs.

Contact: Orders can be placed by mail, fax or phone. Toll-free orders can be placed from the U.S., Puerto Rico or Guam at (800) 527-2345. The Exchange Catalog center is open around-the-clock, seven days a week. Complimentary international access calling is available from several countries. Those numbers are:

* Germany, 0800-82-16500

* Japan/Okinawa, 00531-11-4132

* Korea, 00308-13-0664

* Italy, 8008-71227

* Belgium, 0800-7-2432

* Netherlands, 0800-022-1889

* United Kingdom, 0800-96-8101

* Spain, 900-971-391

* Turkey, 00800-18-488-6312 (Calls must be made from off-base commercial lines.)

Authorized customers can also shop the Exchange Catalog online at,, or

Contact: Exchange Catalog Sales, P.O. Box 660211, Dallas, TX 75266-0211; (800) 527-2345; fax: (800) 446-0163; http://www,;

Malls. Many bases have shopping malls near their exchanges and commissaries. Services include uniform shops, barber shops, beauty parlors, dry cleaners, bookstores, florists and food courts.

MWR. After covering operating expenses, part of exchange earnings support on-base morale, welfare and recreation programs such as swimming pools and arts and crafts centers. For example, in the past 10 years, $2.4 billion has been contributed by AAFES to military MWR programs. Since 1946, over $2.2 billion has been given to MWR to support sailor quality of life.

Other services. AAFES operates a dental clinic for family members at Fort Hood, Texas, and the Marine Corps offers the same at Camp Pendleton, Calif., to help relieve a shortage of dental staff there. Fees are comparable to those under the Tricare Dental Program.

The exchange systems also run optometry and audiology clinics at several bases. Clinics are run by private contractors overseen by local military medical officials. Navy clinics are run by private contractors, with no military medical oversight.

Online shopping. The online stores at, http://www, .com and offer more than 30,000 items via their main sites as well as thousands of items from virtual vendor partners and hundreds of thousands of items from Exchange Online Mall partners. The Internet extends the exchange benefit worldwide to an extremely mobile customer base.

The secure Web sites will verify your exchange privileges against the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System (DEERS) database. Eligible shoppers can create log-in names and passwords. Items ranging from curtains to children’s clothes to uniforms are available.

Other exchange facilities include gas stations, laundries and auto service centers. Some exchanges offer services such as one-hour photo shops, movie rental stores and more. The services operate their package, or liquor, stores as exchange operations.

Contact:,, and

Overseas. Overseas stores offer many U.S. products that may be difficult to find otherwise. Commands often impose shopping restrictions to limit the sale of U.S. goods on the illegal market. Items bought through an exchange or commissary cannot be resold, even at cost. Military police patrol larger exchange shopping areas for illegal marketers.

There also are restrictions on gifts bought in overseas exchanges. For example, cigarettes or alcohol bought in exchanges cannot be given to foreign nationals.

Payment. Stateside and overseas exchanges accept MasterCard, Visa, American Express and Discover credit cards. Exchanges also offer their own credit plan through the joint-exchange Military STAR Card. Exchanges cash personal checks at no charge with a military ID.

Pre-paid phone cards. Exchanges carry phone cards with rates for specific geographic areas, including war zones.

Military Exchange Global Prepaid Calling Cards can be used to call from 200 countries and to call between 90 countries around the world, including any of 77 AAFES phone centers throughout the Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom war zones. The minutes on these exchange prepaid phone cards never expire. No additional charges or connection fees are ever added.

The AAFES Help Our Troops Call Home program, at, lets anyone send Military Exchange Global Prepaid Calling Cards to individual service members or to “any service member” through the Air Force Aid Society, American Red Cross, Fisher House Foundation, Navy-Marine Corps Relief, United Service Organization (USO), and Soldier & Family Assistance Center (SFAC).

More details about AAFES and Help Our Troops Call Home are available at or (800) 527-2345.

NEXCOM offers calling aboard most Navy ships and some Coast Guard cutters for 45 cents per minute back to the U.S.

Price matching. Exchanges will match lower prices on identical items sold by local competitors. For example:

* Navy Exchange and Marine Corps Exchange shoppers who see a price difference at the store of less than $5 can tell the cashier, who will match it on the spot. AAFES shoppers who see a price difference of less than $10 can have the price matched on the spot.

* NEX and MCX customers who report a price difference of greater than $5 need only to bring a current local competitor’s ad to receive the reduced price.

For AAFES customers, the same policy applies, but the price difference must be greater than $10.

If within 14 days of purchase, the identical item is offered at a lower price by the NEX or a local competitor, a refund will be given for the difference. Just bring in a copy of the advertisement and receipt to the NEX.

AAFES offers a 30-day price guarantee on any item originally purchased from AAFES if the identical item is subsequently sold at a lower price by AAFES or another local competitor, excluding unauthorized dealers.

Since the exchanges have a dual mission to provide quality merchandise and services at competitively low prices and generate earnings to supplement MWR programs, there are exceptions to the price matching program.

Except for the Exchange Catalog and the exchange online stores, the exchanges cannot accept challenges from any catalog or Web site. Other exclusions include special offers or promotions, free-with-purchase offers, limited-quantity offers, bundled promotions, special financing, “gimmick” promotions, special-order automotive parts, gasoline, automotive labor/service, double and triple coupons, clearance items, flat percentage off items and vending items. Marine Corps exchanges do not match prices on alcohol and tobacco.

The price matching policy applies to all AAFES and NEX retail stores including main stores, Shoppettes, Class Six, Car Care and troop stores. Complete details are available online at http://www.aafes .com, or

Sales restrictions. Congress restricts what can be sold at exchanges. Stateside exchanges cannot sell cars or fur coats, for example. The Armed Service Exchange Regulations also limit the size of diamonds and type of furniture sold in stateside stores. Exchanges can sell finished furniture, although any one piece cannot cost more than $900.

In addition, Congress banned the sale of sexually explicit materials in exchanges. Material is reviewed by a Defense Department board to determine whether or not the materials can be sold in the exchanges.

There are also some pricing restrictions. Defense Department policy mandates requirements for setting prices on gasoline, alcohol and tobacco.

Savings. Customer savings on exchange purchases average 17 percent to 20 percent compared with off-base retailers. That is over and above savings derived from exclusion of sales taxes. There is no surcharge on exchange purchases.

Store brands. Along with brand-name items, the exchanges carry private-label merchandise with the same quality as national brands, found exclusively in military exchanges, at significant savings. For example, the Exchange Select line offers military service members and their families high-quality, value-priced products. With 557 items in categories such as health and beauty care, household cleaning, laundry and single-use cameras, Exchange Select products provide a low-cost alternative to national brands and are made by reputable manufacturers.

Troops and their families can save an average of 50 percent over national brand equivalents. Quality assurance representatives actively ensure the quality of Exchange Select merchandise by visiting suppliers’ plants to verify that “Good Manufacturing Practices,” as set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other governing agencies, are used. All over-the-counter medicines, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, meet FDA established guidelines, which are the same for Exchange Select and national brand-equivalent products.