Girl Scouts: Big Business for Little Cookies
On a recent sunny Thursday afternoon in midtown Manhattan, a local troop from the Girl Scouts of Greater New York was busy setting up shop to sell their famed cookies to passersby, just as their selling season was winding down.
It wasn't just any street corner, though. The outpost at Park Avenue and 51st Street was nestled between the headquarters of some of the biggest Wall Street banks. Main offices for JP Morgan Chase, UBS, and the Blackstone Group, to name a few, were all within a three block radius.
It turns out bankers have a real sweet tooth. In just an hour, the scouts sold all of the 240 boxes that troop leader Jo-Anne Williams Bilotti had brought for the afternoon.
"I wasn't sure how long their energy would last, but I should have brought more," Bilotti said, surveying the empty table in front of St. Bartholomew's Church.
Don't let America's youngest sales force fool you. The 3.2 million Girl Scouts run a juggernaut business in a limited, eight-week period allotted to each troop. This year cookie sales are on pace to exceed last year's record $790 million, which beat 2011's $760 million. By comparison, the U.S.'s most popular cookie is Mondelez's Oreo, which posts annual U.S. sales of more than $1 billion. Girl Scout cookies are second, followed by another Mondelez brand, Chips Ahoy.
About half of cookie revenues are earmarked for Girl Scout trips and outings for local troops. About 25 percent goes toward operational costs for the national entity, and the rest goes to the girls.The troop in front of St. Bartholomew's plans to throw a pajama party when the selling season wraps up.
The billion-dollar mark for Girl Scout cookies isn't far off, especially if the organization's CEO Anna Maria Chavez's vision comes to pass: e-commerce.
"We're looking at a couple of years… we'll probably have a prototype (in the) next calendar year for girls to test out," Chavez said in an interview with CNBC. "Right now, we're at the front end of that design."
(Watch this: Big Business of Girl Scout Cookies)
But scouts selling cookies online is a controversial idea – one critics call "unthinkable" – for a business built a century ago to help sow entrepreneurialism through interpersonal relationships. So controversial that one of the Girl Scouts' digital experts unequivocally denied the project would happen in a recent New Yorker story.
To Chavez, the main goal of the business and its extension to sell cookies online is still to build financial acumen – something that young girls have lacked, she said.
Two years ago, Chavez commissioned a study to map the girls' knowledge of financial topics. The results showed nearly all girls surveyed were optimistic in their financial future and ability to provide for a family. Only 12 percent, however, expressed high confidence in making financial choices.
"Even though they are fully confident that they can do this, there's a gap in their skill set," said Chavez.
Taking momentum from the "Lean In" movement, Chavez's financial literacy program has gone full-throttle. Among all the badges young girls can earn, there are now 26 business badges, ranging at the young end from "Money Counts" to—at the more sophisticated end – "Profits & Losses."
And among the activities now availed to the young troops: Meetings with mortgage bankers to discuss how to save for a house; briefings from financial advisers about credit scores and how to build a good one; and visits to corporate headquarters to meet with female CEOs and discuss how to run a business. One recent video shows a boardroom where Kay Krill, CEO of Ann Inc., talks to scouts about running her retail business.
An overwhelming majority of the girls on duty outside St. Bart's on that Thursday afternoon said they did, indeed, want to run their own business someday. What type of business? For most of them, the answer was obvious: "Cookies."
—By CNBC's Kayla Tausche; follow her on Twitter: @KaylaTausche