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Why e-commerce for Girl Scout cookies is a bad idea

It's great for American consumers, but it deprives girls of valuable business lessons

When I was a young Cadette Girl Scout, my troop took a trip to New York City, where we stayed at a Girl Scout–affiliated hostel and visited the national headquarters of the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. We funded the trip with our earnings from Girl Scout cookie sales — money we earned by standing in the cold peddling desserts to strangers.

But times have changed. The Girl Scouts recently announced "Digital Cookie," which, as its name suggests, will deliver Girl Scout cookies online. It will launch later this month in limited areas and will begin nationally in January, with as many as one million scouts expected to use the program.

While Digital Cookie is great for American consumers — what's better than being able to buy $4 boxes of Thin Mints and Samoas without leaving your couch? — it won't teach girls the same business lessons they would get from traditional cookie sales.

According to Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., the digital program will teach scouts the value of e-commerce. Each Girl Scout will get her own cookie website, which prospective buyers can access through email invitations. Presumably, these invitations will go to friends and relatives across the country. There's also a mobile app option, which includes credit card processing and direct shipping options.

The scouts will be able to track digital orders and have the option to hand-deliver the cookies. Parents have to approve everything on their daughters' cookie websites. Of course, troops will still have the option to continue traditional cookie sales in addition to Digital Cookie, but it's hard to imagine tweens volunteering to stand in the cold when they have the option of selling cookies from the comfort of their laptops.

"Girls across the country now can use modern tools to expand the size and scope of their cookie business and learn vital entrepreneurial lessons in online marketing, application use, and e-commerce," Sarah Angel-Johnson, who directs Digital Cookie, told The New York Times.

That's all well and good, but in an age in which young women are operating their own Etsy stores and making money from their own YouTube channels, chances are high that these scouts are already quite familiar with online marketing and "application use." Tweens are more tech-savvy than ever — there's a reason they're known as "Generation Swipe."

What they likely aren't familiar with is using good old-fashioned labor to reach their goals.

With traditional cookie sales, girls set a monetary goal and determine how much effort they'll need to achieve it. If you're falling short, you'll have to book more time slots at a local grocery store, or visit a new neighborhood and sell cookies door-to-door. The scouts learn first-hand how to earn and save money and budget time. Digital sales just don't require the same effort; posting a new video or status about your cookie sales goals isn't the same as planning an extra day of sales in the field.

Of course, there are benefits to Digital Cookie. My mother, who favors Little Brownie Bakers over her home state's ABC Bakers, will be able to order cookies directly from my Maryland-based relatives. She'll be able to give business to her own family and obtain cookies from her preferred Girl Scout cookie manufacturer. And it will put an end to the practice of parents bringing cookie order forms to their workplace, which is frowned upon, since girls are supposed to sell the cookies themselves.

The benefits, however, don't seem to outweigh the loss. What's to stop Girl Scouts' parents from sharing with their coworkers the link to their daughters' cookie websites? Digital Cookie also seems to shift sales from strangers at the supermarket to scouts' acquaintances. It makes sales easier, but it also puts a heavier burden on scouts' relatives — and gives well-connected families an unfair advantage.

Selling cookies door-to-door and at the local supermarket evens the playing field for girls and creates incentive to sacrifice their free time to raise more money. And it's hard to believe that sharing a link to your cookie website on Facebook — or your parents' Facebook — requires the same effort as spending a Saturday in a cookie costume outside Target (yes, I'm speaking from experience on that one).

Some young Girl Scouts are skeptical of Digital Cookie, too. "I love going around my neighborhood, my parents' jobs, and my grandfather's job," 13-year-old Bria Vainqueur of New Jersey told the Times. Vainqueur has been selling cookies to local residents since she was 6 years old and plans to continue doing it the old way. (She's also a way better Girl Scout than I was, because her troop plans to use their cookie money on community service, including babysitting services for families in need.)

There are more than two million Girl Scouts, and they bring in almost $800 million a year in cookie sales. More than 80 percent of Girl Scouts participate in cookie sales, and there's no doubt that they'll be able to bring in far more money through the Digital Cookie program than through traditional methods. But the additional profit comes at the price of valuable lessons that come from hard work and direct interaction with people, which are valuable skills that girls can use for the rest of their lives.

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