I’m terrible at selling things.
Luckily, only once in my life has a job come even somewhat close to requiring it of me. After college, I briefly wrote editorial copy for a Groupon-ish site, which sometimes involved chatting up restaurants about why it would be a splendid idea to participate in our service. At the first inkling of hesitation on the business’ part, I’d clam up, abandon the pitch, and apologize for even breathing air near them. I lasted seven months.
So it is one of my life’s great mysteries that, in grades four and five, I was my Junior Girl Scout troop’s top cookie seller for two years straight. I sold the shit out of Girl Scout cookies, ladies and gentlemen, and I even had the reward to prove it: a Girl Scouts of America-embroidered set of green flannel boxer shorts that I hung onto for years too long. In my defense, they were comfy.
I was a generally happy kid, but much of my childhood was also pervaded by a feeling that I was out of place, or not quite fitting the mold. Who knows why? I have a birthmark on my left leg that I hated, and I didn’t go to public school, and maybe those two details were enough to convince me that I was a total weirdo in most other kids’ eyes. Also I liked reading a lot, mostly books beyond my age-appropriate reading level.
So while I wasn’t especially popular or outspoken, I was dynamite at slinging Thin Mints. I filled up entire order forms and had bulk packs of cookies stacked waist-high in our living room ready for delivery. I didn’t just guilt trip my family into buying them, either; I actually did the old-school, door-to-door routine, convincing complete strangers to pony up for Trefoils.
How did I do it? The personal touch. At least, that’s what I think separated me from the other girls. With both my LA Gear light-up sneakers and charm on full offensive, I sweetly—and persistently—asked people to buy my cookies. And when they did, I showed my thanks in a signaturely classic way.
I certainly didn’t earn the top-seller title by extolling the virtues of our troop, which with the benefit of hindsight did not conform to the Girl Scouts of America poster image. The GSA has a worthy mission of developing girls’ leadership skills. The badges, and even the cookie sale itself, are supposed to promote entrepreneurship and risk-taking. As an adult, I heard Girl Scouts of America CEO Sylvia Acevedo speak on a panel with Sandra Day O’Connor, and I was swept up in her message of empowerment for young girls. In contrast, my troop wove a lot of sit-upons, which are mats that, you know, sit upon and recite the Girl Scout Oath.
Our somewhat ragtag crew, Troop 984 of Union, New Jersey, went through typical organizational trials: changes in leadership, loss of members, probably some financial scrapes, etc. We mostly did what we were supposed to, which was hold meetings, earn badges, and braid each others’ hair. There wasn’t much “empowering,” as I recall, unless you count being allowed to use a glue gun while under only cursory adult supervision. My mom recalls our troop leader rather as “a very nice person doing the best she could.” My mom also describes our troop leader’s idea of roughing it as “not having access to a curling iron.”
We completed exactly two overnight trips in my entire five-year tenure from Daisy through Junior Girl Scout. One was a sleepover at a cabin, which turned out to be a green shed behind the town’s public library with bare-minimum heat. We slept in sleeping bags and made Jiffy-Pop and squeezed a badge or two out of it. The second overnight trip was to Camp Sacajawea, which is now a day camp, but which back then offered overnight programming like sing-alongs, nature walks, and identifying which bugs you’re killing in your bunk. All I was looking forward to was going on the night-time, flashlight nature walk, but my friend Kerry chickened out at the last minute and I got stuck drinking juice boxes at an indoor sing-along with her. Lesson? Solidarity is for suckers.
I went it alone on the cookie sale front. We didn’t park ourselves outside churches or supermarkets as a team; it was each little Brownie for herself. So for two or three weekends each fall, my dad and I walked door-to-door around our neighborhood pimping cookies. I had the look down pat. My mom braided my hair—before I turned 12, earned bodily autonomy, and declared that I wanted most of my long hair chopped off—and I wore my freshly ironed Junior Girl Scout sash. I think I was quite cute.
I can’t recall a sales pitch or anything; the basic idea was to smile and foist the order form upon neighbors before they could look away from the Caramel DeLites. (In central New Jersey in the mid-90s, these were the Samoa equivalent.) I sold at least 200 boxes of cookies this way, with a little help from my parents’ posting it in their office break rooms.
Hardly any customers said no. When our area Girl Scout council raised the price of a box by fifty cents, it ruffled the feathers of some of my senior-citizen customers—they’re on a fixed income, you know—but ultimately, my undeniable 10-year-old charm convinced people to buy them anyway. Fun fact: Councils set their cookie prices, so they can vary around the country. Price never seemed to be a big obstacle, though, as nearby households signed up to buy four, five, six boxes each.
Households place different types of orders, and a diligent student of the tao of Girl Scout cookies could decipher them ahead of time. But I was in fourth grade, so what did I know of human psychology? As an adult, I realize the patterns: Stay-at-home moms felt the need to justify their orders with “Oh, the kids love this one and that one.” The numerous police officers and firemen who lived on my block usually made reference to “bringing the boxes to the station” before signing themselves up for nine or ten. Who knows if these cookies ever made it to little Johnny or Sergeant O’Connell or whatever. Folks probably ate them all themselves. I would.
I spent the lag time between selling and distributing the cookies by hand-writing thank you notes to the people who bought them. This was the only true marketing tactic I employed in my sales, besides wearing adorable hair bows. I used rubber bands to affix the notes to the bundles of cookies that I delivered months later from my Radio-Flyer Wagon. The wagon seems like a shrewd, self-aware attempt at adorableness, but really, I just sold a lot of cookies and needed a way to lug them around. Later, when I learned to navigate the family computer, I would use NotePad and MS Paint to mass-produce these notes. My parents were big on thank-you notes in general, but I also realized this set me apart from other Girl Scouts who might try to encroach on my sales territory. Customers remembered my notes, and older people especially complimented me on them. They were my low-tech loyalty program, like free hot-rod calendars from your mechanic or ceramic mugs from your bank.
When the final tallies came in declaring I’d hit some box-selling goal and was eligible to receive an incentive from the GSA catalogue, I pored over my choices, eventually settling on the boxer shorts. I guess I felt proud of myself? I’d been conditioned by my involved, suburban parents to love achievement, but I was deliberately quiet about my sales around the other girls in my troop. I felt self-conscious, per usual, as though they’d accuse me of cheating or would feel discouraged about their own sales. We were ten years old; I doubt anyone cared. It was time to weave more sit-upons, after all.
I haven’t seen a door-to-door Girl Scout cookie sale in years. A combination of anxious parents and unraveling neighborhood social bonds probably has something to do with this, or maybe kids just hawk them on Facebook now. Even at my office, a pair of Girl Scouts last year showed up with Square-enabled credit card-processing technology. Kudos. I too buy the cookies any chance I get, from friends of friends with kids or from troops outside grocery stores. I spread my order between Thin Mints, Shortbreads, and Tagalongs, the refined customer’s trio. (With that trifecta, you get your chocolate fix without the over-sugared and frankly too-sticky addition of coconut, plus shortbread and peanut butter deliver a duo of salty-savory hits. In my professional food writing and cookie-selling opinion, this is the way to go.) For me, Girl Scout cookie time is just as sure a seasonal harbinger as any solstice or sports event, and I anticipate it eagerly.
Which makes me realize I was never that good at selling cookies in the first place. The cookies sell themselves. A 25-year-old dude with shifty eyes beneath a stocking cap could offer me “fell off the truck” Do-Si-Dos and I’d probably cave. I wasn’t competing for customers among other Girl Scouts like a prepubescent LuLaRoe hack; nearly everyone buys Girl Scout cookies every chance they get. I just happened to be the girl holding the clipboard.
Being a top-selling scout didn’t impart the many entrepreneurial lessons the Girl Scouts promise—and I still can’t tie knots for shit—but I did learn to write thank you notes. My friend Dana says I’m single-handedly keeping the Postal Service in business with my snail-mail habit; hopefully I am. I’ve always had a soft spot for written correspondence, for face-to-face meetings, for knowing my neighbors’ names. If those were instilled or at least solidified in me via cookie sales, then those chilly mornings spent knocking on doors were worth it.
My two-year cookie-selling reign was over when our troop leader got divorced, moved away, and dissolved our troop; no one else wanted to step in to host meetings. I tried my hand at school wrapping paper fundraisers and helped out with my brother’s Little League 50/50 sales, but I never enjoyed the same success as I’d had with Girl Scout cookies. I settled in to the pattern I’d follow for the rest of my life: If it doesn’t contain at least 3 grams of saturated fat per unit, I won’t be able to make the sale.