Girl Scouts skirt grocery strike

Now dragging into a fourth month, the grocery workers' strike in southern California has brought picketers to the threadbare ends of their resources, and some estimates set the losses of store owners in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Businesses that rely on access to the stores have suffered as well.

But where some executives might see only a catastrophe, 15-year-old Katie Barth sees a marketing opportunity. She has set a goal of selling 500 boxes of Girl Scout cookies this year, and she thinks she can do it, partly because she has a captive market.

"Every year, when I sell at school, usually people's excuse is that they're going to buy the cookies at the grocery store," Katie says. "They can't say that this year, and more people have been buying from me than usual."

Until now, Girl Scout leaders in southern California have considered access to grocery stores crucial to their annual cookie sale. The region's scattered neighborhoods and car culture typically don't lend themselves to door-to-door tactics, and most civic activities - from petition-gathering to school fundraisers to the Girl Scout cookie sale - center on store entrances.

Last year, nearly one-quarter of cookie sales in Los Angeles took place at store-front tables. But Girl Scout leaders didn't want to appear to be taking sides in the strike or embroiling the girls in picket-line conflicts. So, this year, they're avoiding the stores.

Another member of Katie's Troop 370, Sarah Valdez, says she's been searching for alternative locations, stores that are not affiliated with the major grocery chains targeted in the strike - Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons.

Not being able to go back to the familiar spots "was a bummer" at first, she says, but she's found that other businesses are receptive.

Compared with other obstacles the scouts have faced in the past, the strike is relatively minor, says Joannie Ransom, executive director of the Angeles Girl Scout Council. During World War II, for example, girls had to forego cookie sales altogether because vital ingredients, including sugar and flour, were rationed. Los Angeles was mostly orange groves then, Ms. Ransom says, and the scouts sold fruit instead.

This year, she says, Girl Scout troops are setting up booths at other gathering places, from video stores to nail salons. Others have volunteered to help out. Managers of 48 downtown Los Angeles office buildings have invited troops to set up tables outside their doors and Girl Scouts plan to have a stand at the Los Angeles Marathon next month.

Some have turned to the Internet, selling via e-mail, while others have hit the streets, knocking on doors with sales pitches that would be the expected way of doing business in many cities.

Whatever the approach, Yvonne Schueller, leader of Troop 370, says she's proud of the girls' ingenuity. "This is a learning experience as much as anything," Ms. Schueller says. "They're learning about marketing and communication and how to make things happen."

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