Cookie Logistics

For the past few months, they’ve been inescapable, whether as a relentless procession across my porch with their cherub-like faces pressed against the glass of my front door, or as strategically placed human barricades in front of grocery, hardware and retail stores; no mortal being is safe.

I’m referring, of course, to the annual Girl Scouts cookie drive. And who can resist? (In fact, I’m actually munching on a Thin Mint, as I type this).

Although February is officially recognized as “National Girl Scout Cookie Month,” when most order fulfillment efforts take place, the entire process can begin as early as October and run as late as May. Nonetheless, the baking of literally billions of cookies and the subsequent distribution and delivery of tens of millions of boxes must be accomplished within a narrow time frame, creating one of today’s truly remarkable logistical feats that has earned admiration from corporate and military logisticians alike.

As a classic logistics model, the drive involves the integration of orders, information, material handling, production, packaging, inventory, transportation, warehousing and even security. But what makes it impressive is its designed methodology, which generates a high level of execution accuracy and efficiency, particularly given that it’s performed mostly by seasonal volunteers. This has also piqued the interest within academia where “cookie logistics” is now included as a case study for logistics efficiency.

Mary Holcomb, associate professor of logistics at the University of Tennessee, visited a regional distribution center in West Knoxville, Tenn., which annually moves more than 1.6 million boxes of cookies. “It’s not until you see the volume and quantity of cookies that you understand what’s involved,” Holcomb said. What seemed to impress her the most, however, was the Girl Scouts’ methodology of using color-coding to identify the various types of cookies. “It’s visually driven, making the process of sorting the cookies very accurate and efficient. The system is just beautiful in its simplicity.”

There’s no sophisticated bar code scanning or other automated systems required — just look, grab and go.

On that particular day, moms, dads and other volunteers sorted more than 12,000 cases, equating to some 144,000 boxes, onto a steady queue of cars, vans and SUVs lined up outside the warehouse. Across the nation, hundreds of similar scenarios take place where a regional distribution warehouse stocks neighborhood “cupboards” from which the individual Scouts pull their respective orders. The West Knoxville warehouse alone will handle and distribute more Girl Scout cookies in a three-month period than the total distribution of Oreos for a full year, Holcomb said.

This brings us to the demand side of the equation. After all, there wouldn’t be any material to move if product wasn’t being sold. Therefore, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to the equally impressive sales effort displayed by the Scouts, which has turned this single fundraiser into an annual $800 million cookie-selling empire. And, although this figure may be far lower than that of the big established snack companies, one must remember we’re talking about a part-time business with a sales force comprised of young children.

However, even the big companies must concede, as supported by the two bakers that produce all of the Girl Scout’s cookies, that for the first quarter of each year, Thin Mints consistently rule as the No. 1 cookie in the market.

As for sales prowess, what these Scouts lack in size they more than compensate for in unrivaled tenacity and ingenuity. This year, for example, a sixth-grader from Oklahoma City broke the decades-old record by selling 18,107 boxes in a seven-week period by relentlessly “asking everyone I met to buy cookies.” On the ingenuity side, the hands-down award goes to 13-year-old Danielle Lie and her mom, who reportedly set up shop outside a medical marijuana clinic in San Francisco. According to the article, patients leaving the clinic “didn’t stand a chance,” with 114 boxes sold in just two hours. Nicely played Miss Lie, nicely played.  

As a final note, a New York Times article established that your purchase of Girl Scout cookies also could be tax deductable, as long as they are donated. But the article’s author quickly added, “Why on earth would you pay for Thin Mints if not to eat them as soon as possible?”

My sentiment exactly.

Jerry Peck is a licensed customs broker and Global Trade Management expert with more than 30 years experience in regulatory compliance and GTM optimization solutions. Contact him at 469-235-5229, or at wmjerrypeck@gmail.com.

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