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Knockin’ Off the Girl Scouts

By Mike Breen · January 31st, 2012 · Lost in the Supermarket
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Over the past couple of years I have developed a fascination (a minor one: more “How the hell is The Big Bang Theory one of the most popular shows on TV?” than “How do magnets work?”) with store-brand versions of popular grocery store items. Growing up, “generic” offerings at the supermarket were downright comical, their blunt labels getting right to the point (with imaginative product names like “Laundry Detergent,” “Cereal” and “Beer”) and their quality perfectly suited to the term “generic.” 

But most of today’s grocery chains have their own “generic” brands. More often than not, the difference in quality is minimal, making the products far-less-disgusting alternatives to the more costly name brands than those old no-nonsense generics. Grocery stores are brazen in the shelf placement of their knock-off brands, usually stocking the products directly next to the “competing” brand.

There’s usually no denying the original inspiration for most store-made knock-offs. If you have Mr. Magoo’s dilapidated vision, you might come home from shopping to discover you accidentally picked up the Kroger-made ChipMates instead of the intended Chips Ahoy! brand. Or, I suppose, vice-versa.

Usually when I spot a store-brand “tribute” to a name-brand item, I just chuckle and dream of some huge court battle between two giant companies over, say, how much a particular chain’s N&N’s candy resembles the Mars corporation’s more famous version. But a recent knock-off discovery angered up my blood so much that I began to wonder if there were any limits to what a chain decides to copy and sell at a cheaper rate. 

Taking on Chips Ahoy! is far from stunning.

But a supermarket chain would never take on America’s most beloved cookie-sellers, The Girl Scouts of the United States of America. Or would they?

Selling Girl Scout cookies is the youth group’s biggest fundraiser; it’s probably the most well-known fundraising item ever. Who would try to muscle in on Girl Scouts’ long-claimed territory? A ginormous corporation trying to become more ginormous, that’s who. 

While Kroger didn’t have any store-brand version of the Scouts’ cookies (Kroger is also the only chain store where I’ve seen Scouts selling cookies near the entrance), in Meijer’s cookie aisle, I spotted those familiar rectangular-shaped boxes. Meijer’s “Fudge Treasures” series features some familiar cookie types — there’s Mint (for fans of Thin Mints), Peanut Butter (eerily close to the Scouts’ Tagalongs) and Caramel Coconut, seemingly taking direct inspiration from the gooey Samoas cookies. Why only three brands? Perhaps it’s because, according to the Girl Scouts, Thin Mints, Tagalongs and Samoas are the organization’s biggest sellers. 

It should be noted that it is possible that Meijer’s Scout-like treats are an homage to similar cookies made by the elves at Keebler. The cookie company’s Grasshoppers (nearly identical to Thin Mints) and Coconut Dreams (Samoas) came well after the Girl Scout versions. At least Keebler resisted putting their cookies in replica boxes (favoring a paper wrapper and plastic carton). 

After a week-long binge, I can report that the taste of Meijer’s “knock-offs” — like the ingredients list — is basically identical to both of their Girl Scout and Keebler counterparts. None of the three especially stood out from each other (even covered in chocolate, Meijer’s Caramel Coconut tasted just like Samoas), though my gorging likely exceeded the suggested serving sizes. 

Minus the morality factor, ripping off the Girl Scouts by taking advantage of their McRib-like availability and offering the same product year-round is great business sense. Likewise, making the knock-offs more than $1 cheaper is good business sense (Girl Scout cookies are generally $3.50; Meijer’s cookies were $2.09, while the Keebler ones were on sale for $2 a package.) 

So I don’t know what is more surprising — that the bootleg market for Girl Scout cookies hasn’t been huge and competitive for decades in an effort to cut into that lucrative cookie market, or that a company would so baldly muscle its way into the territory of such a cherished American institution synonymous with youth character-building and innocence.

The Rupert Murdoch in me says, “Brilliant business move, mate!” But the Mother Theresa in me can’t stop shaking her head and going, “Tssk, tssk.”

CONTACT MIKE BREEN: mbreen@citybeat.com



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