Girl Scout Cookie Sales Are Going Increasingly Online. Is There a Downside?

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Girl scout wearing bright red pants and brown scouts vest smiles, carrying clipboard as she walks on a neighborhood street
Nine-year-old Gianna Salcedo joined the Girl Scouts this year and has been knocking on doors in her neighborhood of River Park, Sacramento, to take cookie orders during Girl Scouts cookie season. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

It’s Girl Scout cookie season in California, which means hundreds of thousands of girls armed with decadent treats, selling as many boxes as they can to meet their cookie quotas.

Let’s face it: Most of us have a favorite Girl Scout cookie. Whether it's Thin Mints or Trefoils, one thing has remained constant: Girl Scout cookies are big business — earning $800 million in sales each year. This time of year, Girl Scouts sell more cookies than Oreos and Chips Ahoy. Now, these pint-size entrepreneurs are expanding their sales into the digital world, marketing and selling their coveted cookies online.

“Digital participation methods are quickly becoming more popular,” said Suzanne Olson, director of communications and marketing for the Girl Scouts of Central California. “Girls are preferring to make videos or use email marketing. Our goal is to provide them with as many outlets as we can so they can do that.”

The Girl Scouts’s digital cookie platform was launched five years ago in response to tech-savvy families who wanted more ways to sell cookies. Scouts who decide to use the platform are given access to a number of tech tools to increase sales, beginning with a unique personal “cookie link” they can share on social media and send to friends and family far and wide. Customers choose their favorite flavors, and the boxes arrive at their doorstep, no Girl Scout visit required.

Scouts also can host “virtual cookie booths” via livestream on Facebook or Instagram. For members of the public who aren’t linked to a Girl Scout or her family via social media (and thus wouldn’t find those links), the Girl Scouts are set to launch a Cookie Finder app that will allow cookie buyers to pinpoint a troop in their hood and buy cookies from that troop online.

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Although these digital tools are optional for scouts, the Girl Scouts organization believes they help develop skills that are essential for today's entrepreneurs. While some scouts seized on these new digital opportunities after they launched, others were slower to catch on. But with the pandemic curtailing in-person sales, digital cookie sales have skyrocketed: They now make up 10% of overall cookie sales for the organization.

“This is really the direction our world is going in,” Olson said. “[The digital cookie platform] provides this hybrid model for those who choose to engage in the digital side.”

A brief history of door-to-door cookie sales

With this shift to online sales, some parents and caregivers worry that a new generation of scouts will be deprived of opportunities to hone their public-speaking skills, build their self-confidence, and learn about their community.

For generations, Girl Scouts have been canvassing their neighborhoods. It all started in 1917, when a troop in Muskogee, Oklahoma, whipped up batches of homemade sugar cookies. By the 1960s, door-to-door cookie sales were ingrained in American culture.

black and white photo of three girl scouts holding cookie boxes, standing next to first lady
First Lady Elizabeth Truman, wife of President Harry Truman, opens the 1951 Girl Scout cookie sale by accepting the first box of cookies from three Girl Scouts. (Getty Images)

“We would go door to door through our neighborhood, and we always went with a partner,” recalled Laura Harvey, a retired teacher in Sacramento who spent her entire childhood in the 1960s and '70s as a scout. “It was just very sweet, going around with a wagon and delivering all the cookies. [Neighbors] would be so excited to get them.”

Harvey remembers being a shy, gawky kid, but door-to-door sales helped her feel more comfortable and confident talking to people, especially adults.

“You’re wearing your uniform and that was so special. You’re presenting yourself as a Girl Scout, and people respond very positively to that.”

The Girl Scouts cookie program was established to teach scouts five key life skills: goal setting, decision-making, people skills, money management and business ethics. Olson emphasizes that the girls are still getting those skills whether sales are made in person or online. She argues that in today’s wired world, a scout’s online community is just as important as her physical community.

Striking a digital/in-person balance

Despite the ease and convenience of online sales, many scouts like 9-year-old Gianna Salcedo — daughter of reporter Ana Tintocalis Salcedo — continue to stand by the tried-and-true methods of door-to-door cookie sales.

Salcedo joined the Girls Scouts just before cookie season began in January, and has been practicing her “cookie sales pitch” a few nights a week.

“I like going door to door because you actually get to meet the people in your neighborhood who want the cookies,” Salcedo said. “I like being able to tell them about the cookies and I feel good when they buy from me.”

young girl, her back and long hair visible as well as her girl scouts vest, holds a clipboard as she stands in front of a neighbor's door
Girl Scout Gianna Salcedo waits for a potential cookie customer to answer the door in her neighborhood of River Park, Sacramento. Door-to-door cookie sales remain a core tactic of the Girl Scouts organization, but online cookie sales are rapidly increasing due to the pandemic. (Ana Tintocalis/KQED)

Salcedo has also been exploring some of the new tech tools available to scouts. Many Girl Scouts families see the value in the online sales, but are trying to strike the right balance.

Experts believe the key is for parents or caregivers to establish boundaries, while also finding opportunities for young girls to engage with technology in a meaningful and safe way.

“The best thing we can do for our children is to teach them how to be appropriately digitally engaged in society,” said Dorian Traube, co-director of the Center for the Changing Family at the University of Southern California. “Probably the worst thing we can do is not prepare our kids and then turn them out into this Wild West world.”

Traube speaks from experience.

In addition to being an associate professor of social work at USC, she’s also a Girl Scouts mom and troop leader. She believes the Girl Scouts are doing a phenomenal job in teaching scouts the importance of digital citizenship, by offering programs, workshops and activities on a wide variety of topics, from social media safety to cyberbullying.

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“The Girl Scouts has always grown with the changing environment and a changing culture in the U.S.,” said Traube. “The organization continues to be so relevant because of its ability to adapt — and that’s an important lesson for all kids. Girl Scouts has grown as the life of an American girl has grown.”