Smart Cookies: Girl Scouts Make a Case for Mobile Card Readers

Willy Staley

By Willy Staley  Thu Apr 12, 2012

Willy Staley is a staff writer and columnist for MyBankTracker.com. His columns cover banking, policy, and culture. More Columns »

Amy Loves Yah/flickr source

For some people, there’s no greater injustice than missing out on a seasonally-available food item. It seems this feeling is more pronounced when a product is artificially seasonal. The limited springtime availability of McDonald’s Shamrock Shake and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs are more likely to inspire rage than soft-shell crabs’ or ramps’ short seasons, which are dictated by Mother Nature, and not a corporation’s bottom line. It seems likely that it’s the awareness of being manipulated through arbitrary seasonality that inspires this rage.

But there is one artificially seasonally available product that is less despair-inducing than others. In fact, there’s one that might put a smile on your face. I’m talking about Girl Scout cookies, of course. Thin Mints, Tagalongs and Samoas are a welcome addition to the pantry every spring. It doesn’t hurt that their salespeople are incredibly difficult to say no to.

And now, the classic “I don’t have any cash” excuse* I typically use on kids selling stuff I don’t really think I should be eating, will be outed for the complete BS that it is: according to the Christian Science Monitor, the Girl Scouts are now accepting Visa and MasterCard, though a mobile card swiper dongle not dissimilar to the one issued by Square.

More than one fourth of Girl Scout regional offices have started sending their scouts out with dongles made by Sage, according to CSM, and it’s been a wildly successful program. Sales are up by 13 percent among troops that use the mobile readers, while those that do not have seen no similar sales growth. Those are impressive numbers, without a doubt. Whoever thought of this is almost certainly deserving of a badge, maybe lots of badges.

Strangely, Square and its competitors are fixated on selling their product to cool coffee shops. The advertisements for these things almost always depict a cafe to demonstrate the value of the product. A beautiful, uncharacteristically calm barista smiles as she swipes your card through the reader dongle, or accepts a location-based mobile payment. She knows you by name — score!

The proposition is sort of absurd. The most expensive cash register on OfficeMax’s website costs $250; to use a mobile reader instead, a cafe owner would need to invest in an iPad, which costs twice that. And then they’re faced with the reality that, not only does their POS terminal not store cash, it’s also something people might want to steal. (Side note: I would not be surprised if internal shrinkage is higher at coffee shops than at any other small business.)

In actuality, Girl Scouts are the sort of success stories that these mobile dongle makers ought to showcase. They can actually increase sales by capturing a demographic that wouldn’t be a customer otherwise, or was limited in their purchasing power by the amount of cash they had on hand. Or in my case: too much of a coward to say no to children, or to explain to them that I’m probably capable of eating a whole box in a sitting, that my girlfriend is gluten-free, I just learned that sugar is toxic, etc, etc. I don’t see the need to expose them to the painful realities that await them in adulthood.

Technology will have made my white lie obsolete, though, and I suspect I’m not alone. I’d wager that almost 13 percent of the population does the same, too. It’s such a great excuse! And it’s stunning how well these reader dongles have created customers where there were none prior.

That’s the power of mobile payments, I suppose. Most people have some money, but they have cash on them less and less. And “I don’t have cash” has been an excellent excuse for getting out of all sorts of minor transactions where coercion is key to conversion. No longer. Arm those terrible Greenpeace people with a Square reader and there’s no telling what might happen.

But this, of course, isn’t how mobile readers want to be positioned; they want to be transformative.

Living in the midst of another technology bubble, as many would argue we are, it’s not easy to see, nor is it fashionable to question, the limits of technology’s transformative potential. Were someone to wordcloud every startup’s “About Us” page, I suspect you’d find “revolutionary” and “transformative” crop up to the top in larger font. And in the banking world, it’s mobile payments that promise to transform the way we live. Well, perhaps it will change the way Girl Scouts sell cookies –which is fantastic! — but it’s a tougher pitch to businesses that have been able to provide relatively frictionless payments to customer for decades.

*Chris Gaylord, reporting the story for CSM, hints at this excuse in the beginning of his story, but doesn’t confess to using it. It’s OK, Chris: we all do it.

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