Girl Scouts make more money selling cookies than Oreo

Freshly-baked Oreo cookies pass along a conveyor belt at a Kraft Foods' factory in Suzhou, Jiangsu province May 30, 2012. Investment may be powering the Chinese economy but experiments like Oreo's gum cookie, a cookie with a glob of gum sandwiched neatly between a pair of Oreo's iconic dark chocolate biscuits instead of the creamy white "stuff", which for better or worse never made it to store shelves, are a reminder that consumption is rising sharply. That means it is vital for food companies to get the right products into the market, particularly with demand dimming in the United States and Europe. Picture taken May 30, 2012. To match story CHINA-LOCALISATION/OREOS REUTERS/Aly Song (CHINA - Tags: BUSINESS FOOD SOCIETY)

It's an $800 million business. Image: REUTERS/Aly Song

Grace Donnelly
Data reporter at Fortune magazine, Fortune magazine
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The Girl Scout Central, located in midtown New York City, is something of a shrine to the organization’s most famous product—the cookie. Lunch boxes, keychains, mugs, and magnets displayed near the entry are covered in Thin Mints and Samoas; S’mores and Do-si-dos adorn patches, stickers, pencil pouches, and pins. It’s appropriate decor for the day’s big event: the annual meeting of Girl Scouts of Greater New York’s Cookie Executive Committee, a group of the top-selling Scouts who, despite not yet being old enough to vote, decide everything from logistics to product marketing.

From February to April each year, the more than one million girl scouts in the U.S. sell about 200 million boxes of cookies, managing nearly every aspect of the $800 million business. Some perspective: That’s more than the nearly $675 million in Oreo sales last year, and more than sale of Chips Ahoy and Milano combined

“The annual Girl Scout cookie sale is a force of nature at the national level,” John Frank, a Mintel food analyst, told USA Today. “Big companies like Kraft know it’s coming, and they’ve learned to live with it. It’s like a storm and there’s nothing they can do but wait for it to pass, because there is no upside to marketing against the Girl Scouts.”

The Girl Scout’s cookie sale is the largest entrepreneurial program for girls in the world. Local Girl Scout councils choose which baker to work with (there are two bakeries that are licensed by the organization—that’s the reason ‘Samoas’ are called ‘Caramel deLites’ in some parts of the country), and girls decide how best to sell and what to do with the money they make.

Mrs Coolidge enjoys a Girl Scout Cookie Image: By National Photo Company Collection [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Councils also decide when cookie sales begin and end, meaning that the selling season varies from region to region, but on National Girl Scout Cookie Weekend at the end of February, when the organization honors their cookie entrepreneurs, scouts across the country mean business. While it began as a simple bake sale, the organization’s Digital Cookie platform now allows scouts to track their orders online, manage a customer database, interact with buyers via email, and analyze the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns.

On a rainy February Friday in New York, it was clear that selling season was in full swing at the Girl Scout headquarters. A handful of scouts from throughout the five boroughs manned the cookie sales table inside the lobby, just a few blocks down from Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They chatted with passerby who came in, answering questions (“Yes, we do accept credit cards!”) and encouraging them to buy extra boxes for family and friends.

The sales are an important fundraiser for the organization, but they’re also hands-on entrepreneurial experience for the scouts.

“I want to be a neurosurgeon,” Miranda, a 15-year-old Cadette from Brooklyn told me in between transactions. “As a girl scout, I am able to execute a plan, so when I’m a neurosurgeon and I want to get into the brain, I have to execute a plan.”

Later in the morning, the scouts left their cookie sales table and went upstairs to the Girl Scouts HQ. They stepped out of an elevator bank onto the sparkling floor (literally, covered in golden glitter) of the organization’s offices and took their seats at a boardroom table in green chairs, legs dangling as they waited for the meeting to begin.

The group of sixth-through-eighth graders that gathered in the conference room are New York’s top sellers, a.k.a. the Girl Scouts’ “cookie executives.”

They have business cards and pitch strategies and plenty of ideas about how their fellow scouts can corner the cookie market. The Cookie Executive Committee, after a pizza lunch, dove into a strategic planning session for the 29,000 girls around the city who make up the Girl Scouts of Greater New York.

This program, now in its third year, is unique to the New York City council of Girl Scouts. While members have to sell 500 boxes of cookies to sit on the committee, the boardroom meeting is not just about their personal sales: The participating scouts are asked to collaborate and come up with ways to help the organization as a whole.

“This is big business… These girls are helping the bakery decide what their product launch is going to look like,” Meridith Maskara, the CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater New York, said. “These are big three-year or four-year strategic decisions that they’re contributing to.”

Since its inception, the committee has added a philanthropy portion to the Cookie Executive program, coordinated multi-year planning with the bakery, solved logistics challenges, and changed the scout sales rewards structure. The top goal for sellers rose from 1,000 boxes the first year to 1,500 the second year. A few girls had already sold 2,500 cookies by the end of February in 2018, the third year of the program.

Now with a digital marketplace (“the next 100 years of cookie sales,” according to Maskara) and an app to direct buyers to the closest Girl Scout cookie stand, the world’s biggest girl-led business is preparing the next generation of young women leaders.

These girls are informed, ambitious, and eager to share. After just one morning with them, I left with a new Japanese dish to try, a math museum to check out, and the valuable knowledge that I can purchase cookies online. (In the spirit of full disclosure: I also left with several complimentary boxes of Thin Mints and my very own Girl Scout Cookies Weekend patch.)

“[The digital marketplace is] a full ecommerce platform that they engage with and there are programmatic elements as well,” Maskara said. “So we’re setting them up, not just to stay active in cookie sales, but we’re setting them up for their future business of whatever they choose to do online.”

A former scout herself, Maskara started selling cookies when she was seven years old and now has three daughters earning patches.

Aside from ecommerce and marketing skills, the girls learn about goal tracking, decision making, and business ethics.

“Never underestimate the power of a girl scout and her cookie sale,” Maskara said.

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