Luxury Goods at the Military Exchanges

Earlier this week, I was talking with some friends about spending and overspending.  The conversation came around to the offerings at the military exchanges, and the other people all thought it was awful that the military exchanges sold so many items that were clearly overpriced luxuries, such as designer handbags, huge televisions, and expensive perfumes.  I see their point, even if I’m not sure that I agree.  In my mind, the military exchanges are inteded to offer quality items at decent prices.  Most military folks are not in an income bracket that can sensibly be purchasing $2000 televisions, or $400 purses.  Whose really buying these things, and can they afford them?

In the past, military exchanges were not permitted to sell the larger televisions and other similarly pricey merchandise.  When these regulations were changed, the military exchanges began offering priciere items, including those $2000 Bose entertainment systems and visiting sales from really, really expensive manufacturers. 

I’ve still got mixed feelings.  I understand the logic that some people are going to purchase expensive goods regardless of whether they are sold at the military exchanges, and that selling this merchandise through the exchange can help save those customers some money and also increase the profits of the exchanges.  Since those profits are given back to the military community, offering high-dollar items in the exchanges is presented as a benefit to the military community as a whole.  However, it still feels sort of wrong that military exchanges showcase merchandise that is not within the budget of most military members.  I think it gives some customers the perception that they should be buying these goods.

I’m curious:  what do you think?  Should military exchanges offer luxury goods?  Do you buy them?  What sort of merchandise seems appropriate to you?

About the Author

Kate Horrell
Kate Horrell is a military financial coach, mom of four teens, and Navy spouse. She has a background in taxes and mortgage banking, and a trove of experience helping other military families with their money. Follow her on twitter @realKateHorrell.
  • Chris

    I dont think that those items being on the shelves tells the members they should be buying those items. It is more likely saying that the exchange is not just a low budget econo-shop, its actually a place where you can go to get the same items you can get at overpriced big box stores and boutiques. Regardless if its sold there or off base, in budget or out, service members are going to buy it…why not sell it to them without tax. By the way I am also a servicemember…12 years and counting

    • GinC

      First, thank you for your service Chris. It is men like you, my husband, many of our friends, and all those who have served before that help keep this the greatest nation on earth.

      Second, I concur. :)

      • GinC

        ….or ladies like you if Chris is short for Christina or something. Just thought of that. :)

  • LPP

    Seriously? A few years back, several PXs and BXs were “re-floor planned” to a more Wal-Mart style, and folks complained. So, we have a more upscale PX, and folks complain. BLUF…If someone wants a 64 inch TV, they will find some place to buy it from. And, as a frequent PX shopper, I am not sure I have seen a $400 purse lately. $175 Coach, maybe. It’s a free market economy. They will carry what sells. Sales drive shelf space. Not perceptions.

    • KateKashman

      I’m wondering how much difference there is between exchanges in different locations. My local exchange carries relatively pricey goods, and then in brings in special shows of really, really expensive stuff. I looked at a pretty shawl- wrap-thingy recently, thinking it might be a nice gift to ask for my birthday, and it was well over $1000! I about fell over in shock.

      I do seem to remember that when we were in Hawaii (15-12 years ago), there was a big difference in the price and quality between the NEX at Pearl Harbor and the AAFES at Hickam. Since we were on a newlywed budget, I much preferred Pearl’s less expensive merchandise. Now, I might prefer the slightly nicer stuff, but I’m still never going to be a $90 shirt kind of girl.

  • Gin C

    If it the responsibility of each consumer, be they military or civilian, to develop and work within their own household budget. Having varied offerings within a broad price range on the shelves of the exchanges in no way dictates or suggests to consumers what they ought to be able to afford. That is point one.

    Point two is very simple. An enlisted personnel in the beginnings of their military career will not have the same amount of disposable income as a 10-15 year enlisted member or officer unless the higher ranking personnel has serious financial responsibility issues or a dozen children to care for. That stated, both the newly enlisted member and the seasoned military member have access to the same exchange at their duty station. It is silly to say the exchange should cater to only the lower income consumers at their installation. There isn’t a single thing wrong with having options and freedom to choose how we spend our income. If the officer wants to buy his wife a Coach purse right after the newly enlisted kid in front of him checks out his toilet paper and chips then I say great! The exchanges are not bound to any code that dictates they must cater only to the lower half of the income bracket on the installation.

    • GinC

      It is the responsibility* (not “If it the…”)

      Typos…ugh!

      If there are any others please try not to miss the forest for the trees. :)

  • Katie

    1. I don’t see why it is a bad thing to sell higher quality goods that, because of supply and demand principles, are more expensive. That’s a part of our capitalistic free market: higher priced goods are what some people demand, (regardless of their income bracket) and therefore if there are people willing to buy, companies supply.
    2. Depending on how military members save (or don’t save) for bigger ticket items, the exchanges can meet their demands. The exchange enters into competition with other stores because it supplies those goods and that is not a bad thing. Why or why not the members choose to shop at the exchange is up to them, and that’s the beauty of a free market economy.

  • Michelle

    My husband is retired Navy and I love being able to find quality items at the Exchange. When my children were growing up I was able to dress them in nice cloths at a savings from the outside. It seems like now they don’t carry as many of the higher end children’s cloths as before. Even when my husband was on active duty I appreciated being able to have the chance to get the nicer things since the price was cheaper on base than out in town. It is ashame to believe that everyone in the military will purchase things they can’t afford just because it is offered on base. People who choose to over spend will do it anywhere. Keep on offering the luxury goods!

    • Mary

      I would just like to FIND boys’ clothing at our PX overseas! Of course there’s tons of girls’ clothing, but there are NO dress pants, black or brown socks, or belts for boys aged 5T-12 :(
      Army Wife in Germany

  • docm

    does Benning PX sell firearms or anywhere else in SE

    • DLH

      Fort Stewart PX does…..There are only a couple that do, but I know that Stewart offers firearems.

    • hill

      Ft. Benning Exchange does sell firearms now.

  • JSP

    I loved the chips and purse comment.

  • Crystal

    I completely agree with you! So many people want to live like rockstars, even I like to splurge every now and then! However, I think that there is nothing in the middle, it’s either high end products or no name vendors at the exchange! There is nothing in between, what average person buys. My husband splurged once, when we were dating, and bought me a Dooney &Burke purse, while I was making $75k a year myself I still thought it was way too expensive. In my frugal background I don’t see it necesary to by these high priced items. I’d rather save for a rainy day. But I still use it, it was a gift from my husband!

    Anyway, the logic behind these overprices items is not sufficient to sale them to a pay grade class that can not afford it! It breeds irresponsible spending which leads to unreasonable debt. Which leads me to the Credit card the exchange offers… Why? The military suggest responsible spending and does back ground checks which include credit checks for security clearances so why would they hand them a loaded gun? It doesnt make sense!

  • Rob

    Don’t forget that the BX/PX are there to serve retired members as well as acrive duty. Many retirees can aford the pricier items and the tax free saving can mean the difference between a nice and GREAT (Coach handbag) Xmas gift for the wife.

  • Rob

    Pay grade class has little to nothing to do with finances, debt level and money management. Also, this isn’t the 50’s where only one spouse works.

    Quality items can last a lifetime if taken care of properly. Buy junk and it will have to be replaced often, which may be sensible depending on the item and person.

    • Sailors little wifey

      I totally agree here, pay grade and class has little to nothing to do with it.
      I would really like the person who mentioned the “smoking gun effect” to really read Rob’s comment.

      Also replacing junk and buying quality, I agree it depends on the items and the person. But as we know as with time the pay increases and I hope the money management and being money wise may increase with time then the options the Exchanges provide are completely fair.

  • DRW

    Please do not assume it is always the officers and their wives buying the Coach purses. Although we can afford to, I personally would not spend that kind of money on a purse but I have seen many an Enlisted wife carrying one. Just because a store sells expensive items does not mean you have to buy them- and really, whose business is it but your own? I am glad for what is available.

  • 25+yrs with Navy

    I have been with the Navy for 25+ years, as SeabeeWife states it matters on the location. When in the States with other choices I didn’t really spend much at the NEX.

    However, here in Japan the NEX has more room for the Coach purses and shoes then for the clothing that I would actually wear. Families with teenage daughters are constantly complaining that there isn’t clothing for their teenagers to wear to school with out them looking like “street walkers”. Why do they bother carrying items that can’t be worn to school? So people drive to Yokota and AAFES to buy items they have a better selection.

    The issue I have with the luxury items is that they are taking up space due to “contracts” that could be used on items to better serve the military community that they are suppose to be servicing.

  • becky

    I personally take offense to the statement that luxury goods are “not within the budget of most military members.” Yes, I understand the meaning of the word “most,” but as a well-educated military spouse, I find the assumption that the military member’s income equals the entire family’s income to be outdated and unrealistic. My husband is enlisted, so of course reason and fiscal responsibility say he should not be buying a $2000 TV on just his income. But when you combine his income with mine we make well over $100,000 a year, so why shouldn’t we have “luxury” options available at our Exchanges? The military offers plenty of resources to help soldiers learn to responsibly manage their finances, so if they choose not to take advantage of those resources and/or live above their means, that is their choice. Why would you punish those of us who CAN afford those items because other people choose to be irresponsible?