DECATUR — It’s Girl Scout cookie time once again, but this year, the Central Illinois organization is introducing a new sales program it hopes cookie coveters will embrace.

“This year, we’re using a direct sale program, which means the girls will have cookies in-hand Feb. 1, and customers will have their treats instantly,” said Robin Howard, a program specialist with Girl Scouts of Central Illinois.

Direct sales mean gone are the days in which customers had to wait weeks to receive their sweet treats after ordering them, something local staff, Girl Scouts and prospective customers are excited about.

“I think having the cookies in hand will help with sales, because people don’t have to wait for the cookies to come in,” said Kaitlin Dickey, 12, of Decatur.

Kaitlin, who’s been in Girl Scouts for seven years and is currently a Cadette, said she’s excited to exceed her cookie-selling goal from last year.

“I sold 500 boxes last year, and I’m hoping to sell 500 or more this year,” she said.

CJ Hinrichsen, director of product sales, said he thinks the new sales format promotes more leadership among girls, as well.

“We’re big on leadership and goal setting,” he said, “and I think the direct sales will provide a better opportunity for the girls and troops to reach their goals. It will allow them to sell more cookies and raise more money, too.”

After doing a direct sales pilot program with 21 area Girl Scout troops last year, Hinrichsen said pilot troops, on average, sold 84 more boxes per girl than the Girl Scouts who used order cards and had to deliver cookies to customers a few weeks later.

“There was a significant increase in sales,” he said.

Hinrichsen said the direct sales format also provides a larger client base for the Girl Scouts.

“What’s nice about having the cookies in hand is that everyone becomes a customer,” he said. “If the girls are out with their parents and run into someone (visiting the Midwest) from Alaska and happen to have the cookies with them, they can sell cookies to that person instantly; they don’t have to turn people away.”

Direct sales also help streamline the cookie-selling process, he said.

“Before, the girls and their parents had to go door-to-door with their order card and then return a few weeks later to deliver the cookies,” said Hinrichsen, “but now, direct sales will make it easier for the girls and their families. It becomes a one-transaction sale, but the girls will still have their order cards with them to document if they need to come back to that customer with more boxes of a certain type of cookie or to just keep track of who their customers were for next year.”

In addition to selling more cookies, Girl Scouts of Central Illinois is hopeful the new sales format will increase the number of cookies donated to soldiers throughout the United States and overseas through Operation Cookie Share.

“Operation Cookie Share is going into its fourth year,” Hinrichsen said. “Girl Scouts of Central Illinois works with State Farm’s Military Affinity Group and its Adopt-A-Soldier program by sending them 500 to 600 cases of cookies, and then State Farm takes care of shipping the cookies overseas and throughout the country.”

As Girl Scouts go door-to-door or sell cookies from cookie booths in February, customers will have the chance to give back and share a little taste of home with those serving active military duty.

“There’s a column on the girls’ order sheets dedicated to Operation Cookie Share,” said Robin Howard, a Scout program specialist. “The girls can ask customers if they want to donate any cookies to the soldiers, and we really push the program for the community aspect of it and to help the soldiers.”

Hinrichsen said that as of last year, the Girl Scouts and State Farm had sent more than 190,000 boxes, or more than $700,000 worth of cookies, to troops serving in the United States, as well as Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We get a lot of letters of appreciation from the soldiers,” said Hinrichsen. “It’s really cool, and I’m proud of what our girls and the communities have done. We want our girls to understand the sacrifice our men and women have put in, and we want to touch as many of those men and women as we can.”

Hinrichsen said Girl Scouts is hoping to reach its goal of 6,000 donated boxes for Operation Cookie Share this year.

Sharon McCauley, a technical analyst in the systems technology department at State Farm in Bloomington who helps head the Adopt-A-Soldier program, said it’s exciting to be part of a partnership with Girl Scouts.

“We’re thrilled to do this, and it’s a great partnership between Girl Scouts and Adopt-A-Solider,” she said. “The program teaches the girls respect and how to make an impact in the world, and often the girls get letters back from the soldiers, which is really rewarding.”

McCauley said that while the biggest shipment of Girl Scout cookies goes to the troops in April, Adopt-A-Solider also ships cookies monthly to four adopted soldiers, as well as a deployed canine and its handler.

Girl Scout cookies also are provided to soldiers through Operation Santa, which is based out of Bloomington and provides soldiers with homemade stockings and cookies at Christmas time.

“Generally, when the soldiers get the packages of cookies, it’s a little piece of home for them, plus the knowledge that people back home care about them,” Hinrichsen said.

Cookie sales won’t begin until Feb. 1, but on Saturday, nearly 380 area Girl Scouts got the chance to socialize, play games and get excited about the upcoming cookie season during a Cookie Rally at the Greater Decatur Y.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Jody Mink, a volunteer development specialist who was helping staff the event. “The rally gets the girls really excited for cookie sales, and they have a lot of fun and learn, and it enthuses us and gets us pumped up, too.”

Doing everything from swimming and dancing to setting cookie-selling goals, learning valuable sales information during a Cookie University session and trying out this year’s new cookie, the Mango Crème, the girls and troop leaders couldn’t hide their enthusiasm.

“This is our first cookie rally,” said Kelly Wendel, leader of Maroa-Forsyth Brownie Troop 3135. “We’re really excited for the cookie sales to kick off, and we wanted to get more involved this year.”

Wendel’s daughter, Claire, 8, agreed.

“I want to sell cookies to make people happy and to make them smile,” she said, adding that she favors Caramel deLites.

“I like that we get to sell cookies and have fun with it,” said Audrey Burns, 9. Audrey said she is looking forward to selling more than the 200 boxes from last year.

Howard, who was one of the Decatur Cookie Rally organizers, said the cookie drive is educational for the girls.

“The cookie program is one of the largest financial literacy programs for youth in the country,” she said. “It teaches the girls goal setting and also self-confidence, courage and people skills.”

“The goal-setting concept is great for the girls,” agreed volunteer specialist Jody Mink. “It’s exciting for them to set a goal and reach it, and that’s something that sticks with them and helps them their whole life.”

Pam Kovacevich, Girl Scouts of Central Illinois CEO, said she’s especially eager for this year’s cookie season.

“Any time there is a change, like the change to the direct sale format for cookie sales, there’s renewed excitement and enthusiasm, and I think that’s what we’re seeing this year,” she said. “The very first Girl Scout cookie sales were actually direct sales, where the girls baked cookies in their homes, took them out and sold them directly to people, so it looks like everything that was once old is new again. We’re really excited.”

Cookie sales will begin Feb. 1 and go through March 10.|421-7963

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