Lessons From Inside The $800 Million Girl Scout Cookie Selling Empire

It's not all campfire songs and good deeds. Girl Scout cookie sales are big business, to the tune of nearly $800 million last year. Here are the business skills the future leaders are building.

They are everywhere this time of year, and for most people they are an irresistible product they always come back to: Girl Scout cookies.

For 97 years, Girl Scouts across America have participated in the cookie sales program, which has raised nearly $800 million each of the last two years.

"It’s so important to invest in the next generation of leaders," says Kelly Parisi, Chief Communications Executive for New York City-based Girl Scouts of the USA. Cookies sell for between $4 and $5 a box, and the money raised (after paying the baker) stays in the community and is used to fund Girl Scout troop initiatives. By buying cookies, you’re investing in your community and the girl, Parisi says.

Getting your Thin Mint fix should also make you feel good about the future of women in leadership roles.

According to a recent national study by the Girl Scouts Research Institute (GSRI), only 39% of girls want to be leaders. "Girls are not opting in to leadership roles. They’re putting their hands down earlier and earlier, as early as the age of five," Parisi says. Another GSRI study on financial literacy found that 90% of girls think managing money is an important skill, but only 12% felt confident making financial decisions. "[The cookie program] allows girls to learn these skills in a safe space," Parisi says.

Here are five lessons in entrepreneurship girls learn from the cookie program:

1. Setting and Reaching Goals.

Girl Scouts are encouraged to set and reach goals by earning incentives individually (badges, all the way up to tablets), as well as deciding as a group how they want to spend their cookie earnings. For example, a troop of sixth graders from St. Charles, Ill., recently secured funding and approval to build a wheelchair-accessible swing for a classmate so she could participate in playground activities.

2. Basic Business Ethics And the Best Ways to Find Customers.

Parisi notes girls learn age-appropriate lessons about business ethics and face such situations as: Will she go door-to-door and interact with members of the community, or will she send the order form with Mom or Dad to work? Will she ask family members to buy boxes or set up a table near the grocery store? What happens when a customer overpays for the cookies?

3. Group Decision Making.

Girl scouts are faced with making business decisions on a daily basis: where and when will they sell cookies? Who will staff the cookie sales booth, and for how long? How will the troop market the cookies? Which philanthropy will benefit from their sales? The girls research local programs and decide as a group where to spend their money.

4. Overcoming Shyness and Unique Selling Strategies.

Parisi says many Girl Scouts have told her the cookie program helped them overcome their shyness. "They have to approach people with a product [to sell.] It helps them find their voice," she says. At a kick-off event in New York’s Grand Central Terminal earlier this month, more than 200 Girl Scouts sang campfire songs and sold cookies to surprised commuters. Parisi was approached by one girl with a unique pitch. Instead of going for a hard sell, the girl engaged her by asking which cookie was her favorite, and how many boxes she’d be taking home that night. (The answer: 10 boxes of Thin Mints.)

5. Money management.

Girl Scouts are responsible for keeping accurate records of cookie sales, tallying orders, and collecting money from customers. While younger girls may receive more help from parents, the older girls are running mini-businesses, Parisi notes. Some are even using smartphones to track and process cookie orders, she says. They’re learning business skills, selling product, and having a lot of fun with their friends while doing it, Parisi says.

[Image: Flickr user David Lofink]

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6 Comments

  • Cynthia Lamas

    I found it disconcerting that Girl Scout troops were only receiving a small percentage of the total sales of cookies sold. However, the sale returns is only one part of the Girl Scout Cookie campaign experience. The skills girls learn are priceless. I wish girls had more opportunities for them to hone their leadership and financial skills as they contemplate their future. Great article!

  • Dean Calhoun

    Best girl scout selling strategy I saw was at a ski resort in Colorado. At the end of the day there was a very long line of tired, cold, and hungry skiers waiting to get on a bus back to the parking area. Then you hear that familiar sound "Girl Scout Cookies, Girl Scout Cookies for Sale." There was a small group of girl scouts positioned right next to the line. Money was flying out of wallets and I saw individuals devour the entire box in just a few minutes. It looked like a school of piranhas on a piece of dead meat. Pure genius on these girls part. They will probably grow up to be VPs of Sales and Marketing.