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Three girl scouts selling boxes of cookies.

Girl Scouts from the Greater Minneapolis Council sold nearly 2 million boxes of cookies last year.

Smart cookies

By Jenny Sherman

From eNews, January 12, 2006

Before February 2005, T?rker K???k had never heard of Thin Mints or Do-si-dos. But when the Turkish native and second-year MBA student signed up with Carlson Volunteer Consultants, a program that offers nonprofit Twin Cities organizations free professional-level consulting services, the project for the Girl Scouts was his first choice.

"I took this project is because it focused on marketing," says K???k, who led a student volunteer team that included fellow second-year MBA students Venkatesh Veera and Andrew Kuoh, and Mina Lolomari, a second-year student pursuing a master's degree in human resources and industrial relations. "It was assigned to us based on our prior experience and what kind of consulting job experience we were looking for."

When pressed, he admits the cookies added some incentive. "I expected free cookies," he says with a laugh. "I bought a lot, but I didn't get any [free ones] until the end of the project."

The Girl Scout Council of Greater Minneapolis had approached Carlson Volunteer Consultants with a crunchy problem: Cookie sales had peaked in 2002 and were declining at a steady rate. Scout participation in cookie selling was also down. (Proceeds from the Girl Scout Cookie Program help girls go to Girl Scout camp and travel, and they also fund educational programs and community service projects in their neighborhoods.)

"There might have been many reasons for losing cookie sales: the economy, changing consumer preferences, Girl Scouts not wanting to sell," says K???k. "They didn't have much information. We had to do a lot of investigation."

Cookie varieties

The Girl Scout Council of Greater Minneapolis has been around since 1914. Last year, 34,000 girls sold an average of 126 boxes each--nearly 2 million boxes in all. This year, the Girl Scouts will introduce two new cookie varieties: "Thanks-A-Lot," shortbread cookies dipped in rich fudge and topped with an embossed "Thank You" message in one of five languages, and "Reduced Fat Cartwheels," round oatmeal cookies with a cinnamon burst in every bite.

Source: Girl Scout Council of Greater Minneapolis

K???k and his team discovered a number of factors that were contributing to the declining sales. For starters, deliveries can be problematic. What's more, individual Girl Scouts typically don't save customer information, and often lack incentives to participate in the first place. And the incentives that were in place--saving credits for camping trips and earnings badges--were so complex that even the MBA students had difficulty understanding them.

By May, the Carlson School group had compiled some suggestions for changes. They included methods for increasing customer retention, more effective operational practices, overhauling and simplifying the rewards structure, and incorporating technology into the sales process. Even something as simple as offering to call customers to schedule a delivery resulted in a greater percentage of sales.

"They got really excited about the legacy idea, about creating a customer information database," says K???k. "One of biggest problems is [losing customers]--when a girl leaves the Girl Scouts, all her customers leave with her. You've got to know who the customers are, what cookies they like, and what they like to order. So even if a Girl Scout leaves, you can allocate [those customers] to another scout."

The only thing the team didn't critique was the cookies themselves. Officially, anyway. "Interestingly, they're dropping the ones I liked the best: the Pi?ata cookies," K???k says. "But I made a personal recommendation to keep them."