By Khalil Ben-Gacem
Girl Scouts of the United States of America is a 2.5 million person organization, renowned for its role as a staple of American culture that develops the leadership skills of young girls. Yet, when the organization sells over 200 million boxes of cookies for over $800 million dollars during only one three-month season per year, it is hard to ignore its role as a corporate giant. These sales are astronomical considering the US has only 250 million adults and Oreo’s main line makes less than $750 million of revenue the entire year. But their success does not come without costs and vulnerabilities. The Girl Scouts’ role as a corporate giant comes with the responsibility to respond to market shifts, even if it corrupts their responsibility to the girls participating.
The first element of the Girl Scouts’ model to deteriorate was the reliance on an in-person salesforce that was designed to develop skills in young girls. The Girl Scouts’ objective is to “build girls of courage, confidence, and character” by helping them to sell cookies in public spaces. However, the more consumer markets move online, the more leniency Girl Scouts uses when enforcing its model. In 2014, The Girl Scouts began to implement online platforms by releasing the “Digital Cookie” app, allowing individual girl scouts to track their progress and advertise sales online. The key principle was that online marketing and business development skills are essential leadership skills in the modern world, meaning such a website could still fulfill their mission. While the initial platform encouraged young girls to increase their sales, taught them useful strategies, and exposed them to more potential consumers, later evolutions of The Girl Scouts’ online presence paint a very different story.
During COVID, signups for the Girl Scouts rapidly declined by roughly 30%, but the organization was still under pressure to meet their historical sales figures. Consumer demand ultimately won over the Girl Scouts’ loyalty to the mission of child development when their cookies became available for purchase on Doordash. Online sales have increased year on year for the franchise, moving the cookies directly from Girl Scouts’ licensed bakers, namely ABC Bakers and Little Brownie Bakers, to online retailers, to consumers, cutting the children from the process.
While the Girl Scouts’ in-person sales strategy has persisted for over a century, recent events have proven it cannot compete with online sales platforms. In 2022, supply chain issues meant factories could not produce enough cookies to meet demand, and one town even reported being unable to order more cookies for Girl Scouts to sell while they found “every single kind of cookie available on Doordash.” A decentralized system of families and children helping to sell cookies does not have the logistical capacity to stockpile products for sale during supply chain shortages, and the lower sales costs do not encourage the Girl Scouts Corporation to defend those families. Furthermore, Doordash’s economies of scale afford it a $3.99 delivery fee, while Girl Scouts have not been able to reduce their $12.99 charge for shipping. Since one can seldom expect a corporation to deliberately act against increased profit incentives, Girl Scouts of the USA’s status as a nonprofit will be tested in the near future by its willingness to defend the scouts' position as their primary salesforce.
When anticipating the Girl Scouts’ future decisions, troop funding may provide a strong reason for augmenting the traditional model to include online sales to some extent. Evaluating a scout’s experience only through sales overlooks the other facets of the Girl Scouts. Girl Scout Cookie Season only lasts for one third of the year and takes up a relatively small portion of a scout’s spare time. Throughout the year, Girl Scouts build skills via field trips, skill-building clinics, and community service projects, all of which require excessive funding toward support resources. The majority of revenue is donated to the local scout troop and council, which provides services, oversight, and planning to ensure all such experiences remain available for Girl Scouts. While every box of cookies sold online may be one less experience for a girl scout, it may also be one more dollar toward providing more fulfilling and engaging experiences for those girls.
The questions that remain to be answered are at what point the Girl Scouts are genuinely supporting themselves or simply benefiting from an online business, and whether door-to-door sales are a necessary part of a Girl Scout’s development. The Girl Scouts of America will be tasked with determining at what point the increased funding is no longer worth decreasing the scouts’ involvement and the lost value of opportunities for face-to-face interaction, confidence, and leadership.