On the tree outside my apartment is a QR code prominently displaying a laminated photo of Thin Mints. The code links to a website selling Girl Scout cookies, rerouted from the vanity URL mabelformayor.com. Mabel, the face behind the cookie, is a Chicago Girl Scout who is, like so many other scouts nationwide, embracing a new way of selling cookies in the modern age. At a time when technology is heavily prevalent and COVID-19 has made in-person sales more precarious, Girl Scouts have recently adopted the digital business model—and sales are soaring.
Back in the olden days of 2005, Samoas were sold by knocking on neighbors’ doors. I trudged up the hill in my hometown, red wagon in tow, waiting with dread during each moment of silence between ringing the doorbell and seeing the front door swing open. I couldn’t imagine a different way of doing things, much less the ease of selling cookies alongside my mom in front of a computer screen, collecting digital payments through a platform that kept everything neatly recorded and organized. Had that option been available at the time, my anxiety would have been greatly reduced.
How COVID-19 impacted Girl Scout cookie sales
As the pandemic moved things indoors in 2020, cookie sales had to shift, too. No more public cookie booths, for which scouts and their troop leaders set out tables in front of busy local hotspots to entice passersby. No more ringing doorbells, since extraneous contact (even while masked) was roundly discouraged. The scouts were tasked with finding new channels for cookie sales, and the most popular one was, of course, Facebook.
“During the height of the pandemic we were really limited on how to sell cookies,” says Tess Vermeys, grandmother of Senior Girl Scout Sophia and Junior Girl Scout Audrey in Spirit Lake, Iowa. “I mostly sold to friends on Facebook.”
A guide to Social Media ethics was published by the Girl Scouts of the USA in 2021, indicating that scouts are permitted to use online social platforms, with the permission of their parents and under guided supervision, in an attempt to expand their customer base. Rules specify how exactly parents and kids can use their personal media pages to boost sales. Notably, the initial guidelines say that only family and friends should be connected with cookies in this manner. Scouts are not advised to post on web-based public groups and pages—that’s typically left to the adults.
“Facebook was the biggest social media we used at first,” says Theresa Chapman, mother of Lena, a Cadette, in eastern Pennsylvania. “We were only allowed to post the link on ‘Family and Friends’ setting. We are limited on how we can sell online to protect the scouts.”
Girl Scout cookies in the digital age
This web-based sales method quickly became the norm. In fact, many scouts have never known any other way of selling Girl Scout cookies.
“I don’t get nervous selling online, but if I had to walk up to somebody or ring the doorbell I’d probably get a little nervous,” says Kassidy, a Junior Girl Scout in Harlem. “I don’t have any connection to them. I don’t know them.”
Many parents and guardians, too, consider online sales a great alternative that adds in convenience and safety while insulating the scouts from the rejection that us former scouts of the mid-2000s remember so well.
“We don’t like door to door because there is that nervous factor,” says Vermeys. “And they do get a lot of no’s, which bums them out.”
Still, some Girl Scouts today are braver than I ever was as a preteen. Even though using the internet is now the norm during cookie season, many scouts complement digital sales with in-person ones, approaching conversations with adults head-on so as to learn additional skills.
“I love going door to door!” says Lena, the Cadette from Pennsylvania. “Sometimes it is hard in the snow when we have storms, but seeing my customers each year and hearing how they have been waiting for me makes me feel good.”
Apps, QR codes, and other Girl Scout cookie tech
Selling online has not only made interactions easier for shy scouts, but cookie sales move faster, too. When the Digital Cookie platform was introduced in 2014, a reported 64% of Girl Scouts managed to sell more cookies than they ever had before, leading to an additional 2.5 million boxes sold that year.
The app allows scouts to set cookie goals, track progress, manage orders, and maintain inventory in order to sell safely and effectively online. Gone are the days of anxiously dialing up a parent’s distant friend to sell more Tagalongs: With the online platform, scouts can build their own website, manage their marketing, and even create a unique QR code for distribution. (None of which I could have imagined as a fifth-grader who solely used the internet to play the Powerpuff Girls snowboarding game.)
“It’s their version of bringing the cookies to each individual,” Selena, mother of Kassidy, said about the QR codes.
Indeed, those QR codes are the only way for certain customers to get connected with Girl Scout cookies, especially people in remote areas who might not know any scouts personally. Some Utah troops left flyers on people’s cars, New Jersey troops partnered with Grubhub to tack cookies onto normal orders, and San Diego troops placed door hangers on neighbors’ homes to let them know cookie season had officially commenced.
“My mom came up with this idea to make business cards with the QR code on the back,” says Kassidy. “We’ve been passing them out everywhere, and I’ve given some to staff members, teachers, and classmates.”
With new methods of selling, including QR codes, social media hashtags, and more, Girl Scouts have expanded their reach, but have also expanded the notion of what cookie sales look like. Theresa and Lena in particular found massive success on TikTok; filming videos together with specialized Girl Scouts–related hashtags, they managed to break into a previously untapped market after an influencer helped promote their cookie business.
“Emails to purchase cookies came in so fast and my TikTok would freeze at all the people tagging us,” said Theresa. “We were so thankful.”
Girl Scout cookie sales continue to grow
Bolstered by strong sales, some Girl Scouts have even found the motivation to engage in the “fifty states challenge.” Born during the pandemic, the challenge encouraged scouts to try selling at least one box of cookies to customers in every U.S. state. The winning scouts made headlines, independent artists made badges, and the fifty states challenge became the marker of a true cookie entrepreneur.
Not everything has changed about modern sales methods, though. Maintaining an inventory of Trefoils, Thin Mints, and Samoas stacked in our laundry room was standard cookie season practice throughout my childhood, and although QR codes and TikTok have added complexity to the operation, keeping some inventory on hand remains standard practice for any scout wishing to sell or deliver in person. (Certain troops allow online customers to choose between shipping via standard carriers or hand-delivery from an actual scout.)
And the wider distribution afforded by the internet provides the opportunity for new kinds of philanthropy, too. There’s the “care to share” option, which allows online customers to make a $5 donation so essential workers can be gifted boxes of cookies. And reporter Erin Reed and others have been encouraging people to buy their cookies from trans and nonbinary scouts around the country.
The future of Girl Scout cookie sales
Many parents expressed hope that in the future, Girl Scout cookie season continues to combine the positive aspects of both online and offline sales, letting scouts set up cookie booths while maintaining outreach behind the screen. There’s value in interacting with customers in real time, making a sale by approaching someone to buy cookies at $5 a box, just like there is undeniable value in making a sale through a strategic TikTok dance.
Selena Andrews sees the hybrid sales approach as a positive. “I want to continue doing both side by side in the future to have that true Girl Scout experience,” she said. “But for them to become one of the highest selling girls in the city, I think social media helps a lot.”
When I was seven years old, it took days to make a sale, hyping myself up to get over the nervousness of approaching that one cranky neighbor I knew I’d have to really work a sales pitch on. If I had TikTok, maybe I would have been a bit more creative in my approach, finding and scaling my nationwide customer base in order to become the top-selling scout in my troop.
Then again, maybe not, because my prize for selling 3,500 boxes would have been bragging rights, not a 3D printer.