AAFES Sets Up Soldier Shopping Network

Feb 01, 2002 10:30 PM  By

For the U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, the past holiday season was a rough one. But at the very least, the active soldiers were able to do some holiday shopping, thanks to Army and Air Force Exchange Services (AAFES), the Dallas-based organization in charge of military PXs.

“Commercial phone lines simply aren’t available for personal Internet connections via one’s Internet service provider in the deployed sites, such as Afghanistan,” says Barry Gordon, senior vice president of AAFES, which sells general merchandise ranging from Tag Heuer watches and name-brand DVD players to maternity apparel, children’s clothing, lingerie, and military uniforms. But the organization, which has 1,700 retail locations on military bases in 35 countries and mails 3 million catalogs annually, arranged to have “the military communications lines in Southwest Asia available to us for this special application,” Gordon says.

Setting up a network

Once the appropriate communications lines were available, AAFES then loaded its entire 60,000-item product line onto a network of notebook computers donated by Houston-based manufacturer Compaq. The computers were shipped to the overseas command centers.

Military personnel could then order through the computers just as they would via the AAFES Website. Customers could pay using commercial credit cards or with the Military Star card, AAFES’s private-label card. Customers wishing to use checks could send their orders via snail mail.

At the end of each day, the command center’s “store manager” batch-loaded the orders via the military communications line from the computer to AAFES’s fulfillment center in Dallas. Orders were then picked, packed, and shipped back to Southwest Asia via the military post office or shipped domestically to friends and family members.

Implemented by Gordon in November, the special AAFES network was still operational at press time. “Our normal firewall is not present because the notebooks themselves are in a deployed position in Southwest Asia where only our authorized customers are located,” Gordon explains. “However, in the checkout process, we do ask for the necessary information that will allow us to validate who they are before the order is processed.” If the venture proves to be a success, Gordon wants to roll a similar type of network out to other U.S. military bases worldwide.

Other ways of reaching out

The soldier shopping network wasn’t the only way that AAFES reached out to the more than 1.4 million military personnel on active duty late last year. In November, it mailed about 2,000 of its 625-page fall/winter catalogs to its European headquarters, in Mainz-Kastel, Germany. The catalogs were then distributed from there based on need. And in December it mailed another 15,000 catalogs to AAFES stores overseas.

The Exchange Service’s roots date back to 1895, when the War Department issued General Order number 46 directing post commanders to establish an exchange at every post where practical. In 1948 the Army Exchange Service was redesignated as the AAFES.

In addition to the fall/winter catalog, AAFES mails a 580-page spring/summer edition each year. It also produces five specialty supplements each year: a baby-products book, a health and fitness edition, two seasonal home and garden issues, and a holiday supplement.

Although the service organization is virtually unknown among civilians, AAFES generates massive sales. For fiscal 2000, its retail, catalog, food, service, and concession revenue was nearly $7.33 billion.

That same year AAFES posted earnings of $365 million, which is good news for the soldiers: All of the organization’s earnings are redistributed to programs for military personnel.