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Girl Scout Cookies in Bulk
Annual Rite Becomes a Tool to Teach Entrepreneurial Skills
Reprinted from The New York Times, Business Day, Thursday, March 1, 2007
In an annual rite that is still going strong, Girl Scouts across the country have kicked off their 90th season of cookie sales— but with some modern entrepreneurial twists.
The Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs and other cookie stalwarts remain remarkably the same (although trans fats were removed this year). And Girl Scout cookies remain a sales juggernaut: some 200 million boxes now generate $700 million in sales yearly.
But the Scouts, with a sales force of 2.7 million, have moved from traditional box-by-box selling methods to more varied approaches to get bulk sales. Now there are cookie academies and cookie colleges, as well as more intense sessions in marketing, selling and business skills for girls 11 and over.
The cookie season today is all about individual entrepreneurship — using cookie selling to teach Girl Scouts how to manage money, create a business plan and win customers.
Kicking off the selling season, a Kentucky Scout group last month held a five-hour cookie college in three cities, with 10 classes in marketing, money management, goal setting and the etiquette of approaching customers. In January, 600 Girl Scouts attended a one-day cookie college in Sacramento, sponsored by Merrill Lynch; the seminars included ''Entrepreneur 101'' and ''Creative Marketing.''
Displaying the entrepreneurial flair the Scouts movement encourages, Sarah Cain, 16, reaped a batch of orders last year from local businesses in her hometown, Arlington, Wash., north of Seattle. She found a number of car dealership listings when she researched possible customers in the phone book, and, she said, that gave her the idea of ''asking them to give a box to people who take a test drive.''
Stephen C. Brown, general sales manager of Smokey Point Buick Pontiac GMC, bought eight cases initially (there are 12 boxes of cookies in a case, and a box costs $2.50 to $4 depending on locale) then ordered four more cases after he ran out.
''My understanding of Girl Scout cookies was one box at a time in front of a grocery store,'' Mr. Brown said, ''but she went for volume and bulk.''
For this cookie-selling season (which usually begins in February or March), Ms. Cain has prepared a Power Point presentation and is aiming at hotels — she is already lining up appointments — hoping to persuade them that every room needs a box of familiar cookie comfort.
Ms. Cain, a high school sophomore, who hopes this year to nearly double her sales — from 1,114 boxes to 2,000 boxes — is among the youthful cookie-sellers who are using innovative methods to sell large quantities of the boxes. The proceeds go for Scout activities and special trips. Scouts who make a certain number of sales may receive small prizes like a T-shirt.
Leah Koch, 14, of Chicago uses e-mail messages to snag cookie orders. Starting two years ago, in sixth grade, Ms. Koch began e-mailing a list of prospects, drawing on names from previous order forms. She went from selling 700 boxes a year to 1,000. Then, expanding her e-mail efforts, sales zoomed up to 1,510 last year — making her a top seller locally.
''It saves me time,'' she said of e-mailing, ''because I used to make a lot of phone calls, and people weren't there so I would have to call back again. Now people respond when they're ready to order.''
Officially, Internet sales are banned — although cookies can still be found on eBay — because the Scout umbrella group, the Girl Scouts of the USA, wants to forestall confusion over the cookies' price. Even so, the scouting movement moved this year to expand its Web presence, setting up www.girlscoutcookies.org, so buyers can use their ZIP code to find their nearest cookie-selling troop.
For the first time this year, the Scouts also posted vintage cookie ads and other information on social-networking Web sites including MySpace, YouTube and Friendster.
But the essence of cookie sales is still on the ground. The stepped-up sales training was prompted by teenage Scouts who wanted to sell cookies but had limited time because of schoolwork and sports, and also who found they had tough competition from adorable little Brownies (who also sell Girl Scout cookies).
In 2001, the Girl Scouts Tres Condados Council in Santa Barbara, Calif. — one of 315 councils across the country — developed an initiative that became the C.E.O. in Training Program, to teach entrepreneurship fundamentals.
Grace Tynan, 16, a Tres Condados Scout, took part in the program, where, with one-on-one mentoring, she learned how to set a sales goal, find prospects among local businesses and service organizations, make appointments, create a sample script for telephone contacts, prepare and make a presentation, take orders, coordinate deliveries and make a final report.
Her pitch, which she used successfully last year with a local bank and realty firm, was to provide cookies as incentives for employees, as a treat at the company's weekly staff meeting or to show client appreciation.
''This has really helped me understand business,'' she said.
And that's exactly what it should do, according to Katherine Cloninger, the Girl Scouts chief executive, who says cookie selling fosters independence, self-esteem and confidence.
''We see this as a cutting-edge leadership experience,'' she said. And it is often a girl's first exposure to the working world, where women own about 10.6 million businesses, according to government data. That and the number of Girl Scout alumnae among women executives and members of Congress have encouraged the Scout movement to recruit mentors.
Last year, Catherine M. Coughlin, president and chief executive of AT&T Midwest, along with some sales and marketing colleagues, gave feedback on the sales plans of a dozen Chicago-area girl scouts, including Leah Koch. They plan to do so again this year.
Ms. Coughlin, a former Girl Scout, said: ''Selling cookies used to be pounding the pavement, calling on family and friends, but now these girls really know so much more.
''We asked one girl, for example, how she defined success. And she said: 'We have to make more money than we spend,' '' said Ms. Coughlin, adding ''I wish everyone in business was that smart.''
Members of the National Association of Women Business Owners are mentoring girls in Chesapeake, Va., where Deborah Mollura, who owns a custom gift basket business, is helping local Scouts put together cookie gift baskets — complete with recipes — to attract large orders from local companies.
Scouts are also looking for customers at new sales sites, away from the usual like grocery stores. In Chicago, Girl Scouts will be selling cookies at downtown office buildings like the Sears Tower. Troops in other parts of the country have set up sales booths in tax preparation offices, churches, barber shops, beauty salons and even at marathons.
Despite the emphasis on training, sometimes entrepreneurial moxie just mixes with chance, as happened to Kaitlyn Richardson, 9, who was at her mother's office in Springfield, Va., early last year when a marketing director for Paxton Van Lines asked her mother for corporate client gift ideas.
''I thought about Thin Mints because they come in a green box,'' she said, ''and that would be good for St. Patrick's Day.'' So she piped up with her suggestion, and Frederick D. Paxton, the marketing officer, agreed that they would be great in the company's holiday gift bag for corporate relocation directors.
''Everybody enjoys them,'' said Mr. Paxton, whose order for 320 boxes more than doubled the amount of cookies that Kaitlyn already had sold, ''and the money goes to a good cause.''