Is Wal-Mart pulling a Do-Si-Don't?

Accusations fly that the box retailer is knocking off the Girl Scouts

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 5, 2009 6:06PM (EDT)

It’s not quite on the scale of stealing candy from a baby, but it does come mighty close: Is Wal-Mart ripping off the Girl Scouts?

The accusations started earlier this week, when blogger CV Harquail noted on her blog Authentic Organizations that the retail monolith was in beta distribution of ersatz Thin Mints and Tagalongs. And how did this news come about? In a move somewhere on the scale of tossing fur into a PETA meeting, Wal-Mart distributed the new cookies last week at the BlogHer convention, a hub practically guaranteed to be crawling with troop mothers like Harquail.

Accustomed as we are to year-round strawberries and a near-constant rollout of new TV shows, the notion of anything still being anticipated and seasonal is a great novelty. It’s part of the allure and the buying incentive of the Girl Scouts’ cookie program. The annual drive launches in winter, followed by a seemingly interminable wait for delivery fulfillment in early March.

But cookie revenue funds scouting on a national and individual troop level all year long, for services like counselor training and special activities. It’s also, for many girls, a first lesson in economics and entrepreneurship. So while Girl Scout-esque cookies are already as close as your local supermarket -- as anyone who’s ever indulged in an off-season Keebler Grasshopper will attest -- there is something particularly specific and douchey about Wal-Mart’s impending encroachment on two of the Scouts’ top-selling flavors. (Thin Mints alone account for a quarter of revenue.) It’s particularly troubling during a recession, when this year’s figures have taken a significant dip.

When I asked my 9-year-old, a high sales badge-earning Brownie who lives cookie season like she’s Alec Baldwin in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” for comment on the imbroglio, she darkly replied, “That’s messed up.”

Taking a higher road, Girl Scouts of America representative Michelle Tompkins sent us a statement this morning that “Girl Scouts of the USA does not have a partnership with Wal-Mart; however, many local Girl Scout Councils maintain good relations with this company thanks to their support of Girl Scouting activities at the community level.” She did also note, however, that “Our customers know that every box they buy helps a local Girl Scout.” (Wal-Mart did not return our call.)

It’s that support for scouting that’s the secret ingredient in every Do-Si-Do and Lemon Chalet Creme, and a huge part of why friends and neighbors still seem to wind up buying them by the crate. Will a competitor’s ubiquity -- combined with a lackluster economy -- ultimately cut into the Scouts’ turf? It’s entirely possible. But while Wal-Mart may have the big box, never underestimate the power of little girls -- and that once-a-year rush -- to close the deal. 

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------