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Radio Shack brand may return online

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The Radio Shack stores played a big role in my childhood. My first memory of Radio Shack is from around 1975 when I was six. I went with my dad when he bought new speaker cables. We went others times whenever our TV stopped working. Dad would take the back cover off, pull out some vacuum tubes, and take them in to Radio Shack to use the tab tester. Sometimes there would be a line for the tester. If the tester said a tube was weak, dad would go over to a counter and ask the man there for a new one.

When I got a little I would spend hours poring over the Radio Shack catalog. It was full of things I wished I could buy. There were transistor radios and component hi-fi systems including turntables and a reel-to-reel tape recorders. There were shortwave radios and pages of CB radios and accessories. There were headphones and outdoor speakers. There was an X10 system for controlling your lights from a control box next to your bed. There were metal detectors. And there were pages and pages of electronic parts: tubes, transistors, capacitors, resisters and kits for making your own printed circuit boards.

When I was around 10 my grandparents bought me an electronic projects kit. It was a wooden box with a cardboard panel inside. On the panel were mounted lamps, dials, transistors, and other electronic components. There were spring terminals and wires you would push into the springs to make connections. And there was a book with 150 projects in it. They would tell you which wires went where and then their was an explanation of how the circuit worked.

Visiting the store was always fun. They had in stock most of what was in the catalog. In those days about half the store was taken up with selves full of parts and accessories. It was a do-it-yourself store for electronics. They expected their customers to buy electronics devices and then come back for accessories or for parts to modify them.

The staff was very knowledgeable. You would often see a salesman in a long discussion with a customer about what he wanted he needed to buy and how to hook it up. They wanted people to keep coming back buying a little something each time. For decades they ran a free-battery-a-month club. You would come in, take a battery, show them your membership card, and they would check it off. They didn’t pressure you to buy anything. They knew that if people came in once a month and looked around, sometimes they would buy.

In 1977 they started selling a personal computer, the TRS-80. For the time it was a huge success outselling the Apple II by a factor of five. In just a few years they were selling business versions with floppy disks, hard disks, modems, and printers. They opened special stores called Tandy Radio Shack Computer Centers.

Later they switched to IBM-compatible computers. My first such computer around 1986 was an Tandy 1000SX. But the electronics market was changing. Personal Computers were becoming popular and now could be bought in department stores and toy stores. This cut the margin down to nothing and Radio Shack got out of the computer business.

Radio Shack was in a long slow decline. Consumer electronics were getting cheaper. As computers and the Internet become more people, people temporarily lost interest in building things. They started to bring in outside brands with lower profit margins. More and more of the store was filled with phones and then cell phones, and toys and the racks of parts and accessories slowly got shoved to a back corner of the store. And more and more Radio Shack was competing with the likes of Walmart and Bestbuy.

The big Radio Shack stores were now in indoor shopping malls. They had lost the friendly vibe of the hobby store. They now had fancy displays with cell phones and clerks who were busy signing people up for cell phone plans and had no time for the tinkerers. One of the last times I went into one I was with my little brother. When I told the salesman we were just browsing for our own amusement he told me pointedly that I should take him downstairs to the video arcade.

So I was interested my dad sent me an AP article entitled

Left for dead, twice, RadioShack gets another shot

I don’t think the author remembers Radio Shack in its heyday. He calls it a “mall store” and says they “failed to capitalize on the PC boom of the mid 1980’s”.

If the buyers are just venture capitalists looking to make a quick buck, then nothing much will come of this. They are probably intending to use it for the brand recognition as a way to consumer electronics. The RCA brand is being used in this way. But Radio Shack was never a strong consumer electronics brand. The appeal was that it was cheap and you could hack it.

To do anything worthwhile with it, they would need to go back to the hobby days. An actual “radio shack” is a shelter for two-way radio equipment such as one might find on the deck of a ship. The term evokes radio and electronics as an activity. It is not intended to suggest a place which sells transistor radios which, as this article says, young people “may have never owned”.

Exploiting the brand for its meaning or its nostalgia would require them to hire nerds to create a unique experience. Before Radio Shack became just another mall store selling mobile phones it was a place for hobbyists. It was for people who were interested in electronics, shortwave radio, hi-fi, home automation, and computers. They published books by people like Forest Mims full of projects you could build using parts you could buy at Radio Shack. Half the store was devoted to parts. They had three kinds of customers: the nerds, people who needed replacement parts for practical reasons, and a sort of side business in consumer electronics at the front of the store.

Over the last 30 years this side business at the front of the store swallowed the radio shack. This was especially true in the mall stores where they sold little one could not buy at Wall Mart or the call phone store down the corridor.

Meanwhile the electronics hobbyist market has not gone away. It has simply continued to evolve in ways which Radio Shack was tracking until its shift into consumer electronics. True electronics hobbyists have moved away from shortwave radio and hi-fi, but there has been a resurgence in recent years as other areas have opened up: home automation, micro-controllers, robots, and 3D printers. A good website to get an idea of what is going on is Hackaday:

Bringing Radio Shack back online as a parts and accessories supplier probably wouldn’t work. They would be competing with for the headphones and home automation and Digikey, Mouser, and Jameco for the parts. But it might have a chance as an electronic projects website. The articles would sell the goods. You read a well-written article about tracking airplanes using the signals from their transponders, hacking your robot vacuum cleaner, or how to design a home security system. Press a button and everything you need shows up at your door.

They could sell the parts too, perhaps subcontracting the fulfillment. And they could sell some consumer electronics. But to maintain the brand and the trust they talk about in the article, they need to recover the nerd identity. Get the “nerd cred” back and the nerds will tell their friends to buy from Radio Shack.

They could. But they probably won’t.

Written by David Chappell

December 12th, 2020 at 9:41 am

Posted in electricity,society

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