The Tao of Do-si-dos

Come March, its seems you can't escape them. They're everywhere. At Krogers and Winn-Dixies, K-Marts and Wal-Marts, shopping malls and banks. Their wares beckon you with seductive names: Samoooaaas, Taaagalonnngs É You are momentarily hypnotized. They control the vertical, they control the horizontal. "Of course," you say. "Three dollars a box? Sure, I'll take a couple." And it's been happening this way for more than 64 years. Of course, back in 1936, when the Girl Scouts began their annual cookie sale, they were selling them in front of Woolworths and Kresges instead, but otherwise, little has changed.Although at the national level they depend on dues, grants and donations like any other non-profit organization, Girl Scout Cookies are still the primary fund-raiser for individual Girl Scout troops. Proceeds from the yearly cookie sales allow them to take field trips, plan service activities and go to Girl Scout camp. And the very process of selling the cookies teaches the girls useful life skills, like politeness, assertiveness and good record-keeping.Birth of a CookieIt all started in 1913 when a Philadelphia Girl Scout troop baked a batch of sugar cookies to raise funds for a troop project. In 1922, an article was published in the Girl Scout magazine American Girl, suggesting that other troops bake and sell cookies as a fund-raiser. Girl Scout Cookies went commercial a few years later in 1934 when the Philadelphia scouts hired the Keebler Baking Co. to bake shortbread cookies, which they called "Trefoils" and sold for 23 cents a box. The project was such a hit that, in 1936, the Girl Scouts Cookies began selling their cookies nationally, and the popularity has scarcely subsided since. In 1994, the Girl Scouts were the nation's fifth-largest cookie retailer, selling 130 million boxes. Last year, they were up to 201 million boxes.Girl Scouting in this country is organized around 318 regional councils that are chartered by the Girls Scouts of the USA (GSUSA), which is headquartered in New York. Each council is then divided into a number of troops, each containing girls of similar age. While the national office issues general guidelines on various activities, the councils are largely autonomous. This is especially true of cookie sales.Councils can decide which of the eight types of cookies they will sell. They are mandated to carry at least three -- Trefoils, Thin Mints, and Do-si-dos, a peanut butter sandwich cookie -- and the other varieties they can choose from are Lemon Drops; Tagalongs, a peanut butter cookie covered in chocolate; Striped Chocolate Chips; Samoas, a chocolate/coconut/shortbread concoction; and the latest addition to the line, a low-fat cookie called Apple Cinnamon. Nationally, Thin Mints are the top- selling cookie.In addition, councils determine when during the year they will sell cookies (90 percent choose Winter), as well as which baker will make the cookies and what kinds of incentives the girls will be offered for selling them. A volunteer committee within each council sets the price for a box of cookies and decides how the profits will be apportioned between the council and the troops. Nationally, the price for a box of cookies ranges from $2.50 per box to over $3, with the retail price usually based on a comparison with what other high-end cookies like Pepperidge Farm are selling for in the area. According to the GSUSA, the councils cannot collectively set prices for cookies, lest they be seen as a cartel, which would violate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. There are five levels within Girl Scouts: Daisies (5-6 years old), Brownies (6-8 years old), Juniors (8-11 years old), Cadettes (11-14 years old) and Seniors (14-17 years old). In Kentuckiana, all but the Daisies sell cookies.How the Cookie Sale WorksThe annual cookie sale kicks off with a troop meeting to set goals for that year's cookie drive. They decide what kinds of activities they want to do as a troop that year and what those will cost. Activities could range from field trips to amusement parks to community service projects. They then set goals for how many boxes to sell and how many boxes individual girls will try to sell. Equipped with these goals, the girls begin taking orders for what are known in cookie sale parlance as "pre-sales."Traditionally, this has taken the form of door-to-door sales in the girls' neighborhoods. However, as concerns for safety became an issue, there has been more emphasis on parents accompanying their daughters, or for the older girls, making sure they travel in pairs. For many girls, especially in more rural areas, the bulk of their pre-sales often come from family, friend and teachers, not to mention their parents' co-workers.These pre-sales are then tabulated and sent in to the council, which orders the requisite number of cookies from the baker it has chosen. Three bakers nationally are authorized to make Girl Scout Cookies, one of which is based in Louisville (see "Who Makes the Cookies?"). Unsurprisingly, this baker has contract to bake cookies for the Kentuckiana Girl Scout Council.The cookies are delivered to the various troops. The girls pick them up, deliver them to their pre-sale customers, and collect the money, which is turned in to the troop.Important as these pre-sales are to the overall success of the cookie drive, the majority of cookie sales each year occur at the retail level, through booth sales. These are the girls you see every year set up at card tables in front of your local Kroger store. And yes, there is much competition for the prime booth sale sites and times. Troops put their names in a lottery to find out which K-Mart or Kroger site is available. They are scrupulous about not stepping on other troops' turf, and for this reason, the Internet is out. Some troops sold cookies over the Internet for a while, but it's no longer done, because such sales often crossed into other troops' (or councils') jurisdiction.Rhonda Rogers Van Dyke has a nine year-old daughter, Chelsey, who has been in Girl Scouts for four years. "Our particular troop usually has three girls at a booth to keep the number of girls small, and that way they get more experience. The shy ones aren't lingering toward the back while the outgoing ones are in the front. It's a chance to be heard and to deal with the public directly." Van Dyke is generally enthusiastic about her daughter's cookie -selling experience, but suggests there might be a better mousetrap in terms of scheduling the yearly sale. "I think the time of the year that the cookies are sold is not necessarily the best. We start taking orders at the end of January when everyone is on their New Year's diets. It's cold out for the kids to go around and get orders. Then, the cookies come in right around Easter when (some have) given up sweets for Lent. Perhaps if it were moved up later in the spring, it would be more feasible to sell cookies without people making excuses like 'I'm on a diet'."It's Not Just for Little GirlsThe annual cookie sale is often the most visible activity that most Girl Scout troops undertake in their communities. This can be a burden for older Girl Scouts trying to fit in with their fellow teenagers in high school.Although scouting brings these girls many benefits, providing an aura of "coolness" is not one of them. For Brittany and Bridget (Girl Scout policy dictate that only first names are revealed), both 17 and members of Troop 710 in Southern Indiana(WHERE), there seems to be a sort of "Don't ask, don't tell" policy in place at their high school when it comes to scouting activity."It's known but we don't advertise it," said Brittany. "They know we're Girl Scouts, but we don't get on the intercom every day and say we're selling Girl Scout cookies. We certainly wouldn't want to be caught at school in our uniforms, but it's not a real big deal.""I would think that if anyone was going to make fun of us," Bridget added, "the guys would, but some of the guys in our grade are Boy Scouts still, so nobody says anything to us at school."Even though they've made peace at school with their identity as older Girl Scouts, they still have a hard time dealing with adults' perceptions. This is especially true for Brittany and her troop when they staff a booth during the cookie sale. "I get more negative attention from adults than from other kids," she said. "They don't like the idea of older girls selling cookies, they like the little cute girls. That's like the worst, during booth sales, when you get some of these older people who really are mean. 'You're not supposed to be selling cookies, it's supposed to be little cute girls!' That's what everyone expects. People think Girl Scouts is only for the little kids, but its not."Sales IncentivesGirl Scouts of any age can earn various prizes from selling certain numbers of cookies. Besides cookies that are pre-sold in January, all the cookies sold in booth sales are divided among the girls who staffed that booth. These two numbers combined represent a girl's total for that year. The sales incentives range from T-shirts, sweatshirts and fanny packs to tents, cameras and computers. In addition to these prizes, girls also earn sheets of Cookie Dough -- fake money that can be used to pay for items found at Girl Scout stores, such as uniforms and patches.The younger scouts I interviewed for this article tended to set goals of 200 to 300 boxes. In particular, they all seemed keen on getting the prize for selling 200 boxes, a 24-inch plush frog pillow. Most of the prizes this year are frog-related, tied in to a new millennium/leap year promotion called "Taking the Leap." But for the older scouts like Brittany and Bridget, selling 750 to 1,000 boxes a year isn't unheard of, but their eyes are rarely on the prize."The year I sold 1,000," Brittany said, "the incentive was a 13-inch TV, but that wasn't my goal. I just wanted to see if I could sell 1,000 boxes. I didn't care about the TV, let's just see if I can do it. But It was so hard, and that was working all the time. I did booth sales every day for two weeks straight!" For each of the scouts I spoke to, an even more important sales incentive than individual prizes are the major projects or outings that the cookie sale proceeds allow their troop."That's the biggest incentive," Bridget said, "the amount of money we get back from cookie sales that goes to our troop. Last year, our troop went to Maine, this year we're planning on going to Colorado, and I think next year we're going on a cruise. Our parents can't afford to take us to those different places, and that's one of the better things about being a Girl Scout, you get to experience all those different places with your closest friends. I think it's neat how if we just try and keep going at it, we can accomplish our goals."It's Not Just About Stuffed FrogsIn addition to the field trips and material things that Girl Scouts get out of selling cookies, there are other intangibles that are no less important, especially to parents. Rhonda Rogers Van Dyke is delighted at the changes that have come about in her daughter since she started selling cookies. "For Chelsey, when we first started she was very shy asking people for cookies and she'd be looking at me to help her along," she said. "But the more she's sold them, the more confident she's been, and now she doesn't mind telling people 'They're $3 a box, they'll be in on such and such a date, how many do you want?' She's gotten a lot more confidence and selling -- that's something you'll do for the rest of your life, whether your selling cookies or selling yourself to potential employers, so that's a good skill to have."And the girls themselves seem to understand that the very task of selling the cookies each year provides them with important knowledge and experience that they can take with them into college and beyond."It teaches you a good work ethic," Brittany said. "When we go out and take pre-orders for cookies, it's January. It's snowing! I've done it many times in a foot of snow. And the thing with booth sales is you don't just ask one person, and when they tell you "No," you don't go home. You stay there and work for what you are trying to achieve. That's the most important thing, I think. If you want something and you have a goal, you need to work for it."The cookie sales also allow each troop to take on service projects in their communities. Chelsey's troop in visits nursing homes and has just adopted a portion of road to pick up the garbage. For some troops, especially the older ones like Brittany and Bridget's Troop 710, these kinds of projects are their primary purpose."We do so much service that no one realizes," Bridget said. "We've done Dare to Care, Ronald McDonald House, we have parties for the people at the rehab centers. We fill stockings at Christmas for the Salvation Army. We work the Angel Tree booths in the malls. Whatever is needed. And we don't want praise for it, that's not what we are asking. We're not just something that takes a second seat to Boy Scouts. We are something that really does good in the community. Not just take away all your money with cookies."* * *Who Makes the Cookies?More than 50 percent of all the Girl Scout cookies consumed in America are made in River City by a subsidiary of Keebler Cookies called the Little Brownie Bakers. This place rather resembles the Willy Wonka factory in terms of secrecy and security measures. When I called, the operator would neither confirm nor deny that Girl Scout Cookies are made there, refused to connect me to a PR person, and curtly told me to call GSUSA in New York if I had any further questions.I called the GSUSA's chief press officer twice to inquire about Little Brownie Bakers and never had calls returned. Thankfully, the Director of Communications for the Kentuckiana Council, Sally LaBaugh, was infinitely more helpful, but still couldn't help me crack the iron curtain at Ralph Avenue. According to LaBaugh, my request for a factory tour was out of the question. The only people allowed to enter the factory are Girl Scouts or Girl Scout staff member, and even those people must sign an oath that they won't divulge anything seen there to outsiders. Similarly, my request for a phone interview with a spokesperson for the Little Brownie Bakers was turned down.LaBaugh explained this was nothing personal, that the Little Brownie folks just prefer to keep a very low profile and don't want any publicity at all. Apparently, a few years ago, Connie Chung undertook a hard-hitting investigative piece on Girl Scout Cookies for her short-lived TV show. The story was built around the disgruntled mother of a New Jersey Girl Scout who complained about how little cookie sale money went to her daughter's troop compared to the profit of the cookie bakers and the overhead of the local council. The resultant bad publicity apparently made the bakers even more skittish and made the councils eager to publicize exactly where every penny of the cookie revenue ends up (see "Where Does the Money Go?").In addition to Little Brownie, which has been making Girl Scout Cookies since 1976, there are two other licensed bakers nationally: the American Baking Company (ABC) in Richmond, Va., which pretty much splits the market with Little Brownie, and newcomer Consolidated Biscuits of McComb, Ohio, which supplies just a few councils. Many different bakers have been licensed to make the cookies over the years. At one point there were as many as 10 at once.Where Does the Money Go?In Kentuckiana, all cookies cost $3 per box. According to the local Girl Scout Council, here is how that $3 is spent:* $1.23 goes to the council to cover program-related salaries and expenses, council-sponsored programs, camps and camping activities, adult education, financial assistance and scholarships.* $.89 goes to sale-related expenses including manufacturing, shipping, training and promotional materials.* $.70 of the money goes into the individual troop's treasury to spend as they collectively see fit.* $.18 covers the administrative overhead of the Kentuckiana Council. None of the money goes to GSUSA.[SIDEBAR]THE GIRL SCOUT PROMISE On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country, To help people at all times, And to live by the Girl Scout Law.THE GIRL SCOUT LAW I will do my best to be honest and fair, friendly and helpful, considerate and caring, courageous and strong, and responsible for what I say and do, and to respect myself and others, respect authority, use resources wisely, make the world a better place, and be a sister to every Girl Scout.

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