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How the Girl Scouts took over the Internet

The ability to buy Thin Mints at a click of a button is a testimony to the powers of Girl Scouting.


S.E. Smith

Internet Culture

At last, Girl Scout Cookies have gone digital. In an era when it seems like you can buy almost anything online, the Girl Scouts have long been a holdout, forcing cookie fans to resort to dire measures to access cookies if they can’t get them locally. Now, they can order them directly through websites set up by Scouts themselves. This isn’t just great news for cookie lovers everywhere. It’s also a sign of the times for the Girl Scouts, an organization that has distinguished itself as one that responds to the needs of its members as it works to educate its young female members.

Cookie season isn’t just about eating delicious treats. Sales fund troop and local activities, and they also provide valuable skills for individual Scouts. As they get ready for cookie season and embark on sales, they develop business savvy, learning how to set goals, handle customers, develop business ethics, manage money, and make decisions. Every cookie sale (all $800 million worth of them) represents the empowerment of young women and girls in an organization that has long encouraged members to engage with the world and pursue their dreams.

For many years, the Scouts have resisted online orders. They’ve told individual girls to take down renegade online order pages, ordered girls to stop soliciting buyers through Facebook and social media, and argued that the interpersonal reactions of sales are both critical to the experience, and important for safety. The organization’s move towards the digital has been incremental, but also inevitable; for example, they only recently released a cookie finder app, with accompanying website. When the Girl Scouts did so, they must have known what was coming.

Contrary to the insistent defenses from in-person-only hardliners, online orders don’t have to be unsafe. Individual Scouts have their own cookie buying hubs—which are only available via specific links, girls use their first names only, and parents must approve what they publish, while buyer is are encrypted. And they don’t mean that Scouts don’t interact personally. They still have to solicit buyers to make their goals, deal with concerns about orders, answer questions, and interact with customers. They’re just doing so in new venues, with the Internet forcing them to build a strong online customer base. When you’re selling thousands of boxes of cookies, friends and family won’t cut it.

Meanwhile, the app tool allows Girl Scouts to manage live sales, following years of tradition; the application just makes it easier to keep track of sales and goals and customer payments while allowing girls to take credit cards. Furthermore, Scouts can take down customer information for those who want online sale links and other information. They’re becoming young businesswomen using professional networking tools through the technologies the organization has designed at their request.

In a way, it’s a perfect example of exactly what cookie selling and other Scouting activities are designed to do: provide girls with skills they need to take proactive charge of their lives. In the case of cookie sales, girls are responding to customer demand by accommodating them with online sales options, as a growing number of people prefer to get everything online, including, apparently, Samoas. Pushing their parent organization to create the infrastructure to enable that was a smart business move.  

Sarah Angel-Johnson, who headed the modernization of cookie sales, told The New York Times that “girls across the country now can use modern tools to expand the size and scope of their cookie business and learn vital entrepreneurial lessons in online marketing, application use and e-commerce.” Online commerce is a growing sector of the economy, and girls need to learn to utilize it. If they don’t, they’re going to be behind when they start working after school and college, let alone if they decide to go into business, start companies, or work on digital vending activities like designing system architecture and engineering shopping cart interfaces for customers.

This is a logical next step for girls growing up in an era where children are surrounded by technology from the start. “Digital natives” like those involved in Scouting must have found it utterly bizarre to not have an online ordering system or an app (especially one to process credit cards). That’s changed now, with both available in pilot programs that will slowly roll out across the nation in January, as Scouts kick into cookie season.

Kelly Parisi, a representative of the organization, noted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “We listened to the girls. We are girl-led and girl-driven. The girls live online. They are digital natives.” You’d expect that from an organization that’s all about putting girls in the driver’s seat; the Girl Scouts would be setting a poor example for its members if it didn’t allow young women and girls to have input on organizational policies and advocacy work, including how they sell cookies in a modern retail landscape. They wanted to take sales online, they argued for it, and they won, putting the organization in charge of creating the architecture that would make sales possible while protecting the safety and privacy of individual Scouts.

“I think it helps me organize my life in a way. It has you set goals. I think it will help me grow as a person and a future businesswoman,” said Lauren Tinglin, 15, to USA Today, explaining why cookie sales are more than a quaint tradition.

The adoption of online sales and an app shows that the Girl Scouts are continuing to evolve and be flexible in an era that recently released the “Netiquette” badge for members to develop and test their digital skills. The Girl Scouts have recognized that the Internet is here and it’s not going anywhere, and under pressure from their members, they’ve caved to a demanding public.

This isn’t just about going online to satisfy people who really love Girl Scout cookies, though. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a testimony to the fact that the Girl Scouts are doing exactly what they are supposed to as they provide young women and girls with the courage and tools to negotiate what they want and demand a fair place in society. Girl Scouts wanted the ability to interact with their customers in a more effective way, and their parent organization provided the tools for doing just that. Let no one doubt that Scouts are unstoppable.

Photo via Brian/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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