Girl Scouts, Born Digital

Looks like it’s not only the music industry that needs a new business model, even Girl Scouts selling cookies are running into issues with online sales.

Well the issue is quite simple really: online sales aren’t allowed. When 8-year-old Wild Freeborn set out to sell 12,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, she enlisted the help of her tech-savvy father. The two made a YouTube video and set up a site to allow local customers to order boxes of cookies. Freeborn would then hand-deliver the cookies. What was the problem? After two weeks and 700 orders, parents involved with the local troupe approached the local Girl Scout council saying that Freeborn’s strategy was unfair, lionizing the local cookie market.

The issue, Girl Scouts said, was that not the YouTube video – advertising sales online is okay – but the online order form. Online sales for the troupe as a whole, however, are okay. In a New York Times article, a few more details were given for the reasons behind the national Girl Scouts no-online-sales policy:

Michelle Tompkins, a spokeswoman for the Scouts, says there are good reasons for the online ban, beginning with the familiar dangers that young girls can encounter on the Web. Beyond that, Ms Tompkins says, is the issue of fairness: local councils typically award prizes to girls for reaching certain levels of sales, and since all girls are limited to selling within their local areas, a campaign like Wild’s can overwhelm opportunities for other girls in town.

It seems a little instigative to mention safety concerns first – I can’t imagine any scenarios where online sales would actually be less safe than going door-to-door. Ms. Tompkins does cite valid points about online sales disrupting the traditional process of selling cookies though. But maybe the problem isn’t the Internet, maybe it’s the process itself?

In an age when I can even buy Justin Timberlake’s French toast, it’s strange that I can’t buy something prosaic as a box of Girl Scout cookies from the Internet. In fact, I can – just not legitimately. A quick search just on eBay turns up a couple hundred listings for Girl Scout cookies, with sellers varying from parents of Scouts to resellers. Newsweek points out that Girl Scouts missed out on what could have been a teachable moment here. Selling the cookies is after all, an exercise in entrepreneurship as well as a fundraiser for troupes. If a young digital native is savvy enough to take advantage of the digital sphere, maybe there shouldn’t be anything stopping her.

Education is a big theme of Born Digital, and while Girl Scouts shouldn’t be held solely responsible for teaching young girls about using the Internet, the badges that require technology skills seem designed for an earlier decade:

[T]he “Computer Smarts” requirement for young girls (or “Brownies”) only requires that they visit three Web sites. For older girls, the CyberGirl Scout badge is earned in part by sending an e-mail. “These skills are at a level I’m sure many girls can already surpass,” says Andrea Matwyshyn, a colleague of Fader’s at Wharton.

The competitive world of Girl Scout cookies sales is fraught with tensions of its own – the role of parents playing no small part. But with Girl Scout cookie sales declining this year, it can’t hurt to think outside of the proverbial cookie box.