31 Mar

New York City's Girl Scouts Face Cookie-Selling Challenges Head-On (Wall Street Journal)

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New York City's Girl Scout Cookie Problem

Metro Money: Anne Kadet Examines the Hurdles to Sales Success for Local Scouts

New York is a rough town for entrepreneurs. The crazy logistics, the high cost of doing business, the cutthroat competition—we're all familiar with the plight of our fledgling restaurateurs, shopkeepers and techies. But there's been little attention paid to the trials faced by the city's youngest, most ponytailed impresarios. Yes, that means Girl Scouts. The kids selling Samoas.

Scout officials employ a sophisticated metric to track cookie sales: the Per Girl Average, or PGA. Nationally, the typical scout sells 150 boxes in a season, for a PGA of 150. Here in New York, the PGA is climbing, but it's still relatively modest. When local scouts finish distributing their orders on Monday, they'll have delivered 97 boxes per girl.

The problem cannot possibly lie with NYC's 28,000 scouts. Common sense dictates that our girls are the smartest and savviest in the nation. No, this is simply a tough place to peddle Thin Mints. Director of Product Sales Katie Soper, the woman in charge of cookie fundraising for the Girl Scouts of Greater New York, says there's no doubt about it: "New York is very unique when it comes to cookie sales."

Nationally, for example, the top-selling cookie is the Thin Mint. Here, it's the coconut caramel Samoa; the shortbread Trefoil is surprisingly popular in the Bronx.

Across the nation, troops increasingly sell boxes directly for as little as $3.50—an easy sale. Here, scouts still take orders in advance and demand a relatively steep $4.

And then there's the access conundrum. Meridith Maskara, who leads Troop 4283 in Sunnyside, grew up scouting in Maine. "We'd drive miles from house to house," she says.

Try that in Queens. No, New York scouts must be resourceful, setting up tables outside the Old Navy, cornering neighbors at the Y or creeping around mom's office after school, preying on the admins.

Our local scouts are also dealing with a relatively narrow selection of cookie flavors. Girl Scout councils can buy wholesale cookies from their choice of two official bakeries: ABC Bakers, a subsidiary of private-label cookie maker Interbake Foods, or Little Brownie Bakers, a subsidiary of Kellogg's. New York is a Little Brownie town, partly because it's good at meeting the city's complicated distribution needs, says Ms. Soper.

Still, it means we're missing out on popular ABC varieties offered in other cities, like the new gluten-free Chocolate Chip Shortbread. And while Little Brownie offers eight varieties of cookie, New York scouts offer a streamlined selection of six. Connoisseurs hankering for Little Brownie's Dulce de Leche or Thank U Berry Munch varieties must smuggle them in from out of town.

[caption id="attachment_976" align="alignright" width="300" caption="A scout handles some of the cookie dough. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal"][/caption]

Ms. Soper says she's always tweaking the system to determine what serves the girls best. And for good reason. When it comes to supporting NYC scouting, the cookie sale is huge—last year's sale of 1.2 million boxes funded nearly half the council's $5.7 million budget. And it's a profitable endeavor. For every $4 box, just 98 cents pays for the cookies and 11 cents goes toward sales prizes like the coveted "Peace Love Cookies" Sparkle Zip-Up Sweatshirt. The remainder funds local activities such as camping and troop-leader training.

So what does it take to overcome the obstacles and kill on cookie sales? For pointers, it's best to consult Olivia Cranshaw, a winsome 12-year-old sporting braces and Rapunzel hair. The Upper East Side Scout has sold more than 1,000 boxes a year since she was 7. Last year, she was the city's top dealer and this year, she's ranked No. 2, selling 2,041 boxes. Her stated motivation is refreshingly straightforward: "I like the recognition."

But the execution is complex. In December, the start of the sales season, she emailed her massive list of confection clients, detailing her adventures as the city's reigning cookie queen. "You can't place orders online," she continued, but "since you're one of my good clients, you can send me an e-mail with what you'd like to order."

In January, she sent another email seeking last-minute sales: "I'm going selling again today with Mommy, but would love your help to get over my 2,000 box goal."

Most of her sales are in person, of course. She spent many an afternoon marching from cubicle to cubicle at her parents' offices (both work for French insurance giant AXA). On a good day, she covers up to five floors.

Her pitch is smooth. First, she introduces herself as a top cookie seller: "Last year, I sold 1,812 boxes of Girl Scout cookies, and this year I hope to sell over 2,000."

People want to buy from a top salesgirl, she says, because they assume a successful person knows what she's doing: "And if you explain your goal, people want to help you reach your goal."

She preempts objections from the dieting crowd by offering to donate their orders to troops overseas, and she ends with what her father taught her is a classic presumptive close: "This year, five boxes only cost $20. Can I help you pick out your five?"

"People smirk because it's cute," she says.

The pitch rarely fails—first, because it's slick and compelling; second, who says no to a Girl Scout? Ninety-eight percent of her prospects place an order, she says.

But it's hard to find new leads. Despite this year's expansion to AXA offices in Philadelphia and Jersey City, Ms. Cranshaw is running out of prospects. There's only so many sales she can make to folks at martial-arts class or church coffee hour. She sells door-to door at her co-op, but there are only 36 units, not to mention competition from little sister Isabella. "We have to find more offices to sell to," says Ms. Cranshaw's mother, Cynthia Meyer. "We think that's really the key."

But her daughter doesn't seem worried; she's planning to sell even more next year—2,500 boxes seems about right. "If you complete a goal, you make another goal," she says. "You have to work a little bit harder every year to see if you can beat last year."

Spoken like a true New Yorker.

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