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  1. Military

Online expansion opens military exchange to another 240,000 shoppers in Tampa Bay area

TAMPA — Military exchanges like the one at MacDill Air Force Base have long offered big savings to active-duty troops, military retirees and their families.

Starting Saturday, Veterans Day, deals like 25 percent off on watches, 30 percent off smokers and $70 off an HP laptop will be available to a whole lot more people worldwide — anyone, in fact, who has ever been honorably discharged from the military.

In the Tampa Bay area, the expansion is projected to boost the customer base from about 140,000 now to some 380,000 — and increase the exchange's local economic impact from about $35 million annually to $100 million over the next five years.

"This includes salaries and businesses that support the exchanges," said Tom Shull, director and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based Army and Air Force Exchange Service. "We are looking at almost tripling the overall economic impact over a five-year period."

The newly qualified customers will need to make their purchases online at, as they would with online-only Amazon. Those previously eligible to shop through the exchange can either visit an exchange store or buy online — like they would, say, at Walmart.

"A lot of retirees have a hard time getting to installations," said Shull, a West Point and Harvard University grad and former top executive at retailers Macy's and Barneys. "Some can't drive as often as maybe they could when they were younger. We are mindful of that, and this will allow retirees to shop the exchange online with a much better experience."

Online shopping also enables customers to avoid the hassle of getting into a military base.

Paul Pilny, 73, of Inverness can now enjoy the deep discounts offered by the MacDill exchange even though he served only five years, as Marine sergeant during the Vietnam War.

Pilny helped test the new system and his first purchase was a 65-inch TV.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I went up to Walmart, and it was $550 cheaper online."

MacDill is one of more than 50 "ship from store" locations — an online fulfillment center for certain goods as well as a brick-and-mortar retailer.

Shull oversees a retail operation with more than 2,700 locations in all 50 states, five U.S. territories and 36 nations, in addition to the website. Nationwide, an additional 18.5 million people will be eligible to shop these military exchanges starting Saturday.

Total sales through the exchange are now about $8 billion a year, including stores, food courts, barbershops and pharmacies — making the operation the nation's fifth largest retailer.

So far, nearly a quarter million veterans have registered for online exchange shopping, lured in part by a social media campaign starring entertainers Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Richard Petty, Montel Williams and Dwayne Johnson.

A share of the proceeds supports military fitness centers, child development centers, youth programs and school lunches. This contribution, now $380 million a year, is projected to grow by $100 million during the next five years

Getting Department of Defense approval to expand the pool of eligible shoppers took more than three years. There was concern, Shull said, that flexing the exchange's economic muscle online might draw complaints from other retailers. With online sales at just $250 million per year, it hasn't yet.

"We only account for one-tenth of 1 percent of online sales," Shull said. "We don't think this will be a threat to any major online retailer."

The Florida Retail Federation welcomes the benefit the expansion will bring to veterans and has no concerns about competition, spokesman James Miller said.

"We feel there's plenty of business and opportunity to go around for all retailers in this region," Miller said.

Besides, not all exchange products are available for sale online. Military uniforms won't be. Neither will alcohol, tobacco or firearms.

Ammunition will be available online, Shull said, by directive from the Pentagon

For Shull, a Vietnam War-era Army veteran who saw how the troops from his time were treated, extending the exchange benefits has been a personal mission.

"This is a welcome home," he said, "to all who served, back to their military family."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.