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Hungry for a Thin Mint? There's an app for that

The little cookie queen held still as Scouting officials draped sashes across her shoulder, thrust not one but two heavy awards into her arms and nestled a glittering tiara into her curls. Abigail Bond, the top seller of Girl Scout cookies this year in the Baltimore region (1,619 boxes), attributed the triumph to her "smart cookie mind."

But her computer certainly didn't hurt.

The 8-year-old from Howard County was among thousands of area Scouts who, for the first time in nearly 100 years of old-fashioned cookie-selling, got a technological assist.

"It was easy," Abigail says, explaining how her mom helped her use a Scout-approved program to send dozens of emails to everyone in the family's electronic address book, and how an online goal monitor tickled her motivation to sell. "On a weekend, I could do it while relaxing, instead of sitting in a booth somewhere for four to six hours. It was type, type, go to sleep, I'm done."

It used to be that to move those Thin Mints, a Girl Scout relied on charm and shoe leather, appealing to a neighbor's sweet tooth from the Rockwellian vantage of a doorstep. Door-knocking lives on, but today's savviest Scouts are hustling cookies like the most forward-thinking entrepreneurs — with cyber savoir-faire.

Facebook? Twitter? YouTube? Cookie-hawking Scouts have swarmed them all. They're taking to blogs and blitzing folks with emailed overtures from a custom program called Cookie Club. They're also debuting an iPhone app called the Cookie Finder that points customers hungry for Samoas and Tagalongs in the direction of the nearest sale.

"We feel this has been long overdue," says Sheela Murthy, chairwoman of the Girl Scouts of Central Maryland board. "They can and should be harnessing these things, and the clever ones are doing everything. All of these little budding entrepreneurs we have here. It's so cool."

Next year, the Girls Scouts will celebrate 100 years of sewing on achievement patches, singing campfire songs and dutifully reciting that promise to serve God and country. While membership has fallen steadily over the past decade, cookie sales are inching up — in no small measure, officials say, because technology is helping fewer girls sell smarter.

In fact, Scouts like Abigail who've gone e-cookie are eating the lunch of their more traditional troop members — or at least their dessert. In the Baltimore region, old-school Scouts selling door-to-door averaged about three boxes per sale while their buddies working the online options averaged five-box sales.

"We're shifting the way we do business in a big way, and this is one small indicator of that movement," says Jamie Joyce, vice president of interactive marketing for Girl Scouts of America — the first in the organization to hold such a title. "The general perception of Scouts is that they're an iconic brand that's been around forever, but not particularly a Web-savvy or connected one. We think this change will resonate really well with the public to let them know we are where they are."

Even so, complete online sales are verboten by national headquarters, which insists on keeping cookie sales at least somewhat personal. Girls can advertise their goods and take orders online, but they must drop off cookies and get the money — always cash — in person. Only a few troops in the country, mainly in Ohio and California, are participating in a pilot program where people can pay with credit cards — and then, only adults are allowed to use the necessary equipment.

In 2009, Scouting pooh-bahs famously shut down a North Carolina 8-year-old's YouTube campaign to sell 12,000 boxes. The pig-tailed Scout ended up telling her story to Matt Lauer on the "Today" show — who bought a few sympathy boxes from her.

All of the profits earned through cookie sales stays with local Scouts who use the money to pay for field trips, camp and their requisite craft supplies and snacks. Though Baltimore-area Scouts wrapped their sales drive up early, it's prime cookie time for most of the country, including other parts of Maryland.

A quick check on the Cookie Finder reveals Thin Minty goodness will be available in Laurel, Bowie, Greenbelt and Lanham — for starters.

The Cookie Finder for iPhone is an extension of a Web tool the Scouts have found to be wildly popular. People searching for cookies go online to girlscoutcookies.org, type in their ZIP code and up pops a list, sorted by distance, showing how far to the nearest cookies.

In January alone, that site topped 1 million visits — leading to countless sales for Scouts nationwide. That's a double-digit increase from January 2010, Joyce says, adding that the tool is especially popular in places like New York City, where people might not know any Scouts or where to find them.

Heading into the thick of cookie season, Hannah Hicks, a 12-year-old Scout from Pasadena, not only signed up for Cookie Club, she got creative with her Facebook page, swapping out her profile picture for art she made on her computer — a cookie with the message, "Buy Girl Scout cookies from me!"

She even cleverly combined the cyber with traditional sales techniques by using her Facebook status to broadcast when she and her troop were setting up a cookie booth outside the Staples store in Hanover.

It all paid off, as Hicks, one of the only girls in her troop to try the electronic pitch, was inducted this week into the region's elite "500 Plus Club," an honor reserved for Scouts who sell more than 500 boxes of cookies.

"I'm here because I got online," she says, clutching her honorary certificate and explaining how she hit up folks whose doors she'd never be able to knock on — like her dad's friend from high school who lives far away. "I was making a push on Facebook every week."

Before Hicks could start sending out Cookie Club emails, the program required her to pass a short test designed to, among other things, make sure she knew how to stay safe on the Web.

With the new online tools, the last thing Scout officials want is for girls selling cookies to attract attention from online predators. So girls are not allowed to send email solicitations to strangers, and the Cookie Finder only points customers to sales where adults are present.

"As long as there have been booth sales, as long as we've going door-to-door, as long as there have been Scouts," Joyce says, "we keep safety at the top of our mind."

Sisters Megan and Haley Slaughter of Churchville, both 10, each sold 758 boxes of cookies. Actually, they sold even more, but donated some of their sales to their buddy and troop mate Catherine Shue, also 10, to make sure that she, too, had bragging rights for the "500 Plus Club."

Their mom, Janet, helped the girls set up the email system, consoling them when messages bounced back, trapped in a potential customer's junk mail, and cheering them on as they surpassed their goals.

Though Mom thinks technologically enhanced sales hold promise, she believes what really sells a cookie is the sweetness of a face-to-Scout pitch. "People still liked to be asked by a little kid," Janet Slaughter says. "They still want that personal touch."

Her own little kid begs to differ.

"Next year," Haley says, "I'm going to text, and I'm going to get to 1,000."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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