For the 2012 centennial celebration of the Girl Scouts of the USA, Olivia Ottenfeld had a pretty straightforward goal: sell 2,012 boxes of the organization’s iconic cookies. At 14, she was at a disadvantage compared to the pint-sized Brownies who can sell a box with an adorable smile. So she applied a basic business principle: appeal to as broad a customer base as possible. Instead of carrying boxes door-to-door to her neighbors, she sold cookies at Union Station in downtown Chicago. She texted and emailed friends and family to make sales pitches. She even used her father’s Facebook account to reach the very outer limits of her family’s social circle.
“If I had gone the way I did when I was younger, just contacting family, it would have been harder,” she says. “This opened me up to so many more people that I would have never thought to try and contact.”
The ease of connecting with customers through email, texting and social media is one of the reasons the Girl Scouts are selling more cookies than ever before. Almost $800 million worth of Thin Mints, Samoas and other coveted flavors were sold during the 2011-2012 selling season. Though the economic recovery has been stuck in slow motion, cookie sales have increased at a brisk pace since the recession bottomed out, from 192 million boxes in 2009 to 214 million in 2012. With 1.5 million Girl Scouts selling cookies each year, that’s about 143 boxes per small businesswoman.
“When this particular downturn started, we worried,” says Amanda Hamaker, manager of product sales for Girl Scouts of the USA. “I definitely looked at it and wondered if it was going to have an impact.”
Instead, sales have remained strong. Hamaker credits the cookie success with people’s familiarity with the brand and their knowledge that their money is going to help girls. In a typical $4 box of cookies, $2 funds operation costs for a Girl Scout council, the independently run local group that organizes Girl Scout troops. $1 goes to the individual troop a girl is selling for, and $1 is for the cost of baking and packaging the cookies themselves. Each council works with one of two baking companies owned by Interbake Foods and Kellog, so flavors differ in different parts of the country.
“From a financial perspective, the money that they are able to earn as a result of participation in the program makes the Girl Scout experience possible,” Hamaker says. “This is really the engine in terms of having girls be able to do great things in Girl Scouting.”
The cookies are also a key marketing tool for the Girl Scouts program. This fall the Girl Scouts are rolling out a new advertising campaign that involves the first redesign of the cookie box in 13 years. The new boxes, which are debuting now as a few councils begin an early selling season, feature explanations of scouting activities to better connect the cookies with overall goals of the program.
“The Girl Scout cookie box is our most valuable form of real estate,” says Michelle Tompkins, media manager for Girl Scouts of the USA. “It’s really how we’re most known, and now we’re telling people more about our story using the cookie box.”
Technology has also played a key role in allowing girls to connect with more hungry customers. Megan O’Donnel, a 16-year-old Girl Scout in Chicago who has been selling cookies since kindergarten, sold more than half of her 2,000 boxes this year by reaching out to people as far away as Ireland on Facebook. She also was able to use a mobile credit card reader to allow people to pay with plastic for the first time. Hamaker says councils that have adopted the technology have seen increased sales.
The organization has yet to go fully digital and allow the direct purchase of cookies online, but Hamaker says they’re currently exploring options. “It’s definitely a matter of making sure that [the girls] are participating and have a consumer engagement experience,” Hamaker says. “We can’t really allow for anonymous sales.”
An online interface might exacerbate an issue that scout leaders have long wrestled with—parents selling cookies for their girls, often at the office. “We acknowledge that there are adults that are ‘extremely helpful’ in their girls’ efforts,” Hamaker says. “A big focus of the campaign right now is to get adults and the community to understand that they should be trying to buy from a girl.”
By selling cookies, girls are supposed to learn five basic skills key for any would-be entrepreneur to have: money management, decision-making, business ethics, people skills, and goal setting. Heavy parental involvement can muddle the learning of these lessons. As Tompkins points out, “The girl is the CEO. The parents are the support staff.”
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With her 2,012 boxes generating around $8,000 in revenue, Ottenfeld has certainly picked up these skills. She says she’s mulling a career in business or PR when her scouting days are over. She’s all for more high-tech tools to help boost her sales, like mobile payments and an online store. But at its most basic form, her business strategy is pretty simple: appeal to a large customer base with a quality product. “I mean, who doesn’t love a box of girl scout cookies?” she says. “That probably helps.”