Louis Zayon served in the Navy, stationed in Norfolk, Va., from 1972 to 1976, before he was honorably discharged.
This Veterans Day, on Saturday, will offer him and about 18.5 million veterans worldwide and their families a little something special: tax-free online shopping for life with AAFES, an acronym for Army and Air Force Exchange Service – the primary shopping center at U.S. military installations.
Until now, only those on active duty, in the National Guard, the Reserves, retirees, and those who were 100 percent disabled could shop online with AAFES.
"It's appreciated," said Zayon, 62, who lives in Northeast Philly. "I won't have to pay the 6 percent sales tax in Pennsylvania, and the additional 2 percent sales tax when I make a purchase within the city of Philadelphia. It saves money, and every little thing counts."
There are about 900,000 veterans in Pennsylvania and 393,000 in New Jersey who would be impacted by the change. Veterans can visit ShopMyExchange.com to verify eligibility and begin shopping tax-free online on Veterans Day.
Zayon is among 71,000 veterans in the Philadelphia area who are eligible for the tax-free online shopping benefit. His wife, Melissa, will also be eligible under his name.
"The prices are competitive with Amazon and other retail stores," he said.
Zayon, who works full time in law enforcement, was randomly selected to participate in the extended online shopping program's pilot that launched this past summer. He has since shopped online at ShopMyExchange.com twice to buy diapers for his 2-year-old grandson and razor blades for himself.
Tom Shull, Army & Air Force Exchange Service director and CEO, whose idea was to expand the online shopping benefit to honorably discharged veterans, said this marks the first change to the Department of Defense Armed Services Exchange Regulation that governs who receives limited and full privileges at American military installations since 1990.
The policy currently covers 12 million active-duty members and retirees. About 18.5 million veterans will be eligible to shop online. Their spouses and children, estimated at 10 million, can benefit indirectly as the veterans can shop for them. Shull said the AAFES' customer base could swell up to 40 million customers once the change takes effect.
"We are delighted to extend this benefit to all veterans that served honorably," Shull said. "Our veterans now have the opportunity to shop for national brands at a significant discount of 20 to 30 percent at our brick-and-mortar stores, [known as PXs and BXs] and with our online shop."
Army specialist Alesia Deville shops about once a month at the AAFES Exchange at the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst facility in Burlington County, for needs from clothing to hygiene products.
Although she has never shopped online with AAFES, she said the extension of the tax-free online shopping benefit is a good thing. About two-thirds of AAFES earnings go toward funding quality-of-life programs for military personnel and their families, including the purchase of a million combat uniforms at below cost, providing a school lunch program for three million school kids overseas, and Army child-development centers.
"More people will be shopping, which means more money for these programs," said Deville, 27, of Lumberton, who works in administration for the Army and did some shopping last Friday at the Joint Base's AAFES store.
The remaining third of AAFES earnings, said Shull, go toward improving the shopping experience, such as store design and enhancing ShopMyExchange.com. He said women's wear, handbags, and the number of designer clothing and shoe brands have been significantly enhanced over the last five years to improve the shopping experience at AAFES stores.
"This is a virtuous cycle in terms of extending the benefit to veterans and their families from anywhere in the world, and a way for veterans to support quality-of-life programs for active-duty service members and their families," said Shull, a Vietnam-era veteran.
Extending the tax-free online shopping benefit was a homecoming of sorts, he said.
"It's really an honor to welcome families and veterans to this program," Shull said, "to be able to treat them the way they should have been for the sacrifices they made to ensure all of our freedoms with honor and dignity."