The Girl Scout cookie skirmish

Wal-Mart’s new cookies taste just like the famous fundraisers. That has some up in arms.

The Girl Scout cookie skirmishIt was three o’clock in the afternoon when Celia V. Harquail, who was having a sugar low, spotted a pile of chocolate cookies on a plastic silver catering tray. She was at a women’s blogging conference in Chicago, which happened a few weeks ago, and was partly sponsored by Wal-Mart. The tempting treats were new, private-label biscuits that the retailer was testing. Harquail grabbed one and bit into it. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, this tastes like a Thin Mint,’ ” she says, referring to the most popular Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. (GSUSA) cookie. On another tray, a stack of confections resembled Tagalongs, the GSUSA peanut butter patties, Harquail’s favourite. One chomp in, she was struck by the similarities—the melty chocolate, the sticky peanut butter, the appearance. Until now, every imitation Harquail had tried had been terrible. But these ones, she says from New Jersey where she lives, were “good, tasty, well-done cookies.”

By that evening, Harquail, whose two daughters are Girl Scouts, was rattled. Wal-Mart, it seemed to her, was about to compete with a non-profit organization by offering a delicious, less expensive version of the coveted GSUSA cookies, which are sold once a year as a fundraiser. (Wal-Mart head office won’t say how much the cookies cost, or how many stores sell them. But one superstore in Williamsville, N.Y., quoted US$2.38 a box. GSUSA cookies cost between US$3 and $4.) So Harquail, a corporate consultant and former prof, vented on her blog, authentic­ “Wal-Mart knocks off the Girl Scouts,” her post began. “These cookies are poised to snatch cookie sales right out of the hands of the Girl Scouts.”

Since then, a polarizing debate has ignited in the blogosphere. “Thin Mint-y Gate,” as Harquail calls it, has GSUSA loyalists indignant—“Knock-offs are destroying one of our nation’s greatest non-profits”—and capitalists fighting back—“Wal-Mart saw a market for the cookies. It’s business.” But the reaction from the GSUSA has been surprisingly muted, if not gracious, given that 70 per cent of the US$700 million in annual cookie sales goes directly to the Scout troops (the rest pays the bakers). “There’s a perception that Wal-Mart has done something wrong,” says Michelle Tompkins of the GSUSA, but the retailer isn’t infringing on the charity’s trademarks. She chalks the furor up to a David and Goliath narrative: “People like to find a big corporation and say they’re bullying. That isn’t the case.”

In fact, GSUSA says Wal-Mart has been a big supporter by allowing the girls to sell cookies in front of its stores. What’s more, Tompkins says that the number of Thin Mints and Tagalongs sold is only one part of the cookie program, which at its core teaches the troops life skills. And she suspects that customers will keep buying GSUSA cookies no matter how many imitations are out there because they believe in the organization’s mission.

Taken too far, Harquail says that view is a “very consoling interpretation” of what’s ahead. “Up until this point the Girl Scouts haven’t had real competition—the world’s largest retailer ebbing into their market.” She suspects that eventually the charity’s sales will erode. Ideally, Harquail wishes Wal-Mart would never have bothered doing the cookies. Now that it’s happened, she wants the company to reach out to the GSUSA and find a way “to use Wal-Mart’s muscles and skill to help the Girl Scouts build a more robust fundraising platform.” Cookie sales, she believes, won’t suffice for long.

So far, Wal-Mart has only issued a statement confirming it makes “Great Value” cookies (“Fudge Mint” and “Fudge Covered Peanut Butter Filled”) and attesting to the company’s support of GSUSA through donations from the Walmart Foundation and its Good Works program. In Canada, Wal-Mart does not yet offer a private label version of cookies sold by the Girl Guides of Canada. But if that day came, Korrina Lattermore of Girl Guides says its patrons wouldn’t stray: “Our cookies are part of the Canadian fabric. There’s a relationship between the girls and customers.”

And if the going got tough, couldn’t the Girl Guides and Girl Scouts just sell their goodies more often? Nope. “It is cachet for us. If [they were] available all year, maybe there wouldn’t be the same demand,” says Lattermore. Judging by the uproar among cookie purists over Wal-Mart’s versions, she may be right. But Tompkins is cautious: “We love that customers are standing up for us. We’re hoping that they really stand up for us and buy a box of cookies in the spring.”