February 1, 2016

Learning the digital economy, the Girl Scout way

Last year, the Girl Scouts of the USA piloted Digital Cookie, an online cookie ordering platform, to teach girls about digital business. The Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts is one of more than 50 councils nationwide using the portal.
On top of online sales, Digital Cookie gives the Girl Scouts the chance to teach about Internet safety.

Not too long ago, getting Girl Scout cookies to out-of-state friends and family involved buying and shipping them out yourself. But today, Thin Mints and Samoas are just a click away.

The Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts council is in its second year using Digital Cookie, an Internet portal for cookie ordering created with the idea of introducing girls to safe online business practices. Using a digital platform has allowed Girl Scouts in the Central and Western Massachusetts council to sell more easily to their friends and family, some of whom live as far away as California.

Selling cookies has always been about teaching Girl Scouts confidence and business skills, and this is a digital extension of that, said Sara Rowan, director of program for the Girl Scouts of Central and Western Massachusetts.

"With the world of e-commerce these days, having our girls as young as Daisies and Brownies -- kindergarten, first grade, second grade -- being able to be online with their parents or their guardians, almost setting up a little shop online, it's just a fun, unique thing that the girls get to do," Rowan said.

Digital economy

By launching Digital Cookie, the Girl Scouts are now part of the constantly shifting digital narrative. This is in some sense a sign that electronic retail is now the center of business, rather than on the outside, said Catherine Tucker, the Sloan distinguished professor of management and professor of marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management.

At the same time, Tucker said, what is and what is not available digitally is still constantly changing.

"In 2000 we thought that many businesses, such as pet food, would be digital. That turned out not to be the best idea," she said. "However, recent developments like Uber shows us that many more traditional businesses can take advantages of the improved logistics inherent in being a digital business."

According to seasonally-adjusted numbers from the U.S. Department of Commerce, e-commerce sales have increased steadily over the past 10 or so years. Internet sales in the third quarter of 2015 accounted for more than 7 percent of total sales. In quarter three of 2010, that number was just more than 4 percent.

Learning about business

Last year, scouts in the GSCWM council were the first in-person beta testers of Digital Cookie. The council is one of more than 50 nationwide offering Digital Cookie –- Eastern Massachusetts is not one of them.

In its pilot year, online sales accounted for just 5 percent of GSCWM's overall cookie sales, Rowan said, but it allowed girls to sell to places they otherwise wouldn't have been able to.

"What's fun is looking at a map and seeing all of the states that girls in Central and Western Massachusetts have sold cookies in because of the digital program," Rowan said. "Of course, you see tons of Florida [because of grandparents], but you also hit most of the other states."

During this cookie season, which goes until March, Rowan said she hopes anywhere between 600-1,000 of the council's 7,000 girls will set up online stores. It typically takes two to five business days for online shoppers to receive their cookies, depending on where they live, she said.

Digital Cookie has been useful for Maria Matys, a sophomore at Quaboag Regional Middle High School in Warren, largely because it gives her a way to keep track of the 2,016 cookie boxes she plans to sell this year.

Matys, a board member at GSCWM and 10-year Girl Scout veteran, got to test out Digital Cookie during its pilot phase last year and was one of the first to check out the 2.0 version.

"It's a good start for learning how to manage stuff. They made it really simple," Matys said. "It's a lot more efficient, and I have more time for offline sales."

Online safety

Digital Cookie isn't just a selling platform. It also has informational videos about Internet safety and etiquette, with the goal of teaching girls how to conduct themselves online.

The all-inclusive nature of the portal represents the challenge of introducing children to the Internet, Tucker said.

"The reasons the Girl Scouts have to keep these sites within a walled garden is that as well as it [is] making it easy for children to find good things, the digital environment also makes it easy for them to find out about things which are less desirable," she said.

The website does give girls a lot of independence, but parents are heavily involved in the process, Rowan said. Children under 13 years old have to use a parent or guardian's email address for the website, and kids over 13 have to get parental approval for everything they put on their pages. Troop leaders and council members also have access to the girls' sites.

As an extra safety precaution, GSCWM also opted out of allowing girls to deliver purchases made online in person, Rowan said.

"Typically, girls are sending out emails saying, 'Hey, fantastic news, you can buy cookies online' to friends and family, but sometimes an email can get forwarded to someone a girl doesn't know. We wanted to avoid situations where stranger can order from a girl," she said.

But learning how to navigate the digital economy has made the safety precautious worthwhile.

Matys said selling cookies has taught her a lot about money management and sales and having an easy online ordering portal will allow her to focus on in-person, offline sales, something she'll have to do to reach her hefty goal.

Digital Cookie allows girls to enter their offline sales into the portal -- it even reminds them to do so.

"I need all the sales I can get to reach my goal," Matys said.

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