The Woodfield Mall in suburban Schaumburg, Ill., is home to a new Scouting store aimed at recruiting new families to the Boy Scouts of America.
As he walked from Macy’s to Sears during an ordinary visit to the mall one afternoon last May, a father of two boys saw a sign in the Grand Court that caught his eye. “Prepared. For Life.” it read beneath a Boy Scout emblem. Just what he’d like his boys to be. And then a Scouting volunteer engaged the father, Bhabha Padmanabhan, and his son, Sid, 9, in a conversation about Scouts. He was hooked.
“I had no idea what Boy Scouts was or how to join,” said Padmanabhan, originally from India. “Sid likes the natural world — he loves Wild Kratts on television — but I want to get him away from looking at screens all the time.”
Padmanabhan came to Woodfield Mall in suburban Schaumburg, Ill., just in time for the grand opening of the new Boy Scouts of America Discovery Outpost, sponsored by the Northwest Suburban Council. This is one of the first mall storefronts dedicated to promoting Scouting.
The Woodfield Mall has about 240 stores and draws up to 23 million visitors a year. That’s a lot of potential Scouts, parents and volunteers. The Outpost’s goal is to present Scouting to these shoppers and engage them in learning more about BSA programs.
Padmanabhan was encouraged to enter the store, where a Scouting volunteer showed him how to enter his ZIP code on a large touch-screen TV version of the beascout.org website to locate age-appropriate troops near his home. He found several troops in his area, even one at his son’s school. Sid, meanwhile, watched videos of kids having fun on zip lines and BMX bikes, shooting, archery and more on one of the other widescreen TVs in the Outpost.
“Dad, can I really do that kind of stuff in Boy Scouts?” he asked. His father smiled and said, “Yes.”
Sharing the Story of Scouting
The original idea for the Discovery Outpost occurred to Dave Sheppard, president of the Northwest Suburban Council. “I found out that [according to a 2013 BSA national survey] 46 percent of kids have never been asked to be Scouts, and many parents don’t feel it is relevant to their families because they think it’s about camping and hiking,” he says. “I thought there had to be a way to connect with these people.” Sheppard’s first idea was to rent a kiosk at Woodfield, but when the executive committee met there to check it out, it quickly became clear that nobody spends much time at a kiosk.
And then fate intervened. “The mall’s general manager, David Gott, was walking by just as we were saying that a kiosk wouldn’t work. He offered us retail space instead for just a little more than a kiosk would cost,” says Matt Thornton, a Central Region area director.
Including store employee salaries, benefits, build-out materials, merchandise and the discounted rent, the total cost of the Outpost approached $200,000 by the end of 2014, although costs are not as high as they could be. Many Scouting volunteers and supporters donated labor and equipment costs, including Home Depot and Abt Electronics. Nearby BSA councils also helped provide volunteers and support during the Outpost’s planning and build-out phases. One generous donor, who wishes to remain anonymous, currently funds the other costs.
Baiting the Hook
When it comes to recruiting more parents and kids to join Scouting, “many people no longer consider a flier to be an ‘ask,’ ” says Kate Jacobs, marketing specialist for the Northwest Suburban Council. Instead, “the BSA must … enable potential Scouts and their families to sample Scouting, so they can understand how the programs provide life-changing experiences they can’t get anywhere else. The Discovery Outpost is a prime example of this.”
The Outpost doesn’t stock uniforms. And it doesn’t have much gear for sale. Instead, you’ll find a small selection of merchandise aimed at changing perceptions about Scouting — like rockets, crystals and slime. The Outpost aims to “show a broad spectrum of what [kids can do] in Scouting,” says store manager and Eagle Scout Patrick Norman. Four video screens show these activities, including one in the front window aimed at passers-by.
The key to the Outpost’s success, says Drew Glassford, director of the Northern Illinois Council’s strategic initiatives, is to “demonstrate visually what Scouting means and then engage parents with well-trained staff.” Once engaged, it’s up to the staff to provide parents with the information they need to register.
Before Padmanabhan left the Outpost, he entered his contact information into a system designed to capture details about interested Scouting families. This system allows the council to funnel leads generated at the Outpost to unit leaders and follow up on every lead and request.
Thornton, the area director, points out that, while it’s important to share the Scouting story, the store’s goal is to connect interested parents with local units. “It will be a game changer if we can even generate 5,000 leads with a 3 percent close rate.” And they are off to a good start with more than 750 new contacts gathered since opening day.
What’s Next for the Outpost?
Going forward, the Discovery Outpost will attract people by offering frequent hands-on programs. Recently, two Northwestern University professors spent a Saturday afternoon doing physics experiments with kids, including creating super bubbles of carbon dioxide using a bowl, water, dry ice and dish detergent. Home Depot has also hosted building workshops for kids who want to build their own helicopters, boats or cars.
These activities are promoted on the Discovery Outpost’s Facebook page, in the local media and on the Northwest Suburban Council’s new website, scoutchannel.org. “We had to figure out a way to meet today’s kids where they were,” notes area vice president of marketing Mike Jimenez, who created scoutchannel.org. And it’s that same grassroots approach to recruiting that’s rooted in the council’s efforts to introduce Scouting to mall visitors at Discovery Outpost.
Create Your Own Discovery Outpost
Dave Sheppard, the driving force behind this concept, believes that storefront Scouting can be replicated in other parts of the country. Here are some basic considerations he and marketing specialist Kate Jacobs recommend:
- Choose a high-traffic mall. You want to be visible to a lot of eyeballs.
- Look for a space that the mall has found hard to rent. The Woodfield Discovery Outpost space is small (1,060 square feet), too small for many retail outlets.
- Maximize the visual presentation of Scout activities to draw the interest of screen-oriented boys.
- Create a regular program of activities, especially hands-on demonstrations, to make the Outpost a destination for Scouts. Seeing kids having fun in the store draws the interest of non-Scout kids and parents.
- Hire an enthusiastic manager with a Scouting background who enjoys a wide variety of activities.
- Train volunteers in techniques for approaching prospective Scouts and their parents.
- Budget for ongoing operations and concentrate on fundraising from corporate and wealthy donors to ensure continuing stability for your Outpost.