Saving Radio Shack

When I was 12-years old, every weekend my brother and I would ride our bike about halfway across Yakima, Washington, to visit our local Radio Shack. For curious young boys, Radio Shack was The Promised Land. We would drool over TRS-80 computers and dot matrix printers. We bought 101 Electronics Experiments boxes where we would spend hours trying to get a diode to light up. Christmas time was best of all: we would spend hours pouring over the Radio Shack catalog lusting after all the cool things only a young geek could love.

When I was 19-years old, I worked part-time at the Radio Shack on the west side of Olympia, Washington, while I was going to school. The job was a dream. I worked with a sharp older guy, always in a tie, and a long-haired hippy geek who knew his transistors. Closing times were the best, because the store quieted down in the evenings and I could get in some quality time with King’s Quest on a CoCo.

Fast forward a couple decades, and I read in the paper this morning Radio Shack is heading for oblivion. The stock has lost 90% of its value over the past five years, and is trading at around $2.00 a share. Radio Shack lost its way.

Radio Shack died when it lost its geek roots and tried to become just another consumer electronics company. They sacrificed their name to try to be another Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA or Frys. They started that race to the bottom of having to compete with much larger companies on margins, not innovation. Circuit City and CompUSA failed at that game. You can buy a cell phone or computer anywhere. There was nothing special about buying it at Radio Shack.

Now that Radio Shack has dumped another incompetent CEO, I humbly offer them some free advice on how to get their mojo back.

Get back to your roots — You’ll never be a Best Buy, nor do you want to be. You betrayed you biggest group of users (Geeks) and you need to earn back that trust. Forget about selling something I can buy at Amazon or a local big box store cheaper; create your niche again. You need to be thinking about what the next generation will care about. For example, you should be the go-to location for Arduino and Rasberry Pi. Carry every accessory and model under the sun for these devices, backed by knowledgeable, professional staff. Have classes on them. Even sponsor workshops and in-store hackathons.

Bring back the good stuff — Your electronics toys were epic. Bring back the originals, not the cheap plastic crap you’re peddling now. Sell them as “collector’s editions” or “vintage” and charge more. I would love to buy my daughter one of the 100-in-one kits with the pieces on little cubes that you wire together.

Target strong niches — Be the GPS store for Geocachers, carrying the top GPS brands and geocaching accessories. Offer classes and sell books. Carry a wide assortment of HAM radios, antennas and accessories and hire people who are passionate about it to offer advice and stir interest. Finally, capitalize on the Prepper movement. Sell world-band radios, solar power panels, tools and lessons on fixing electronics, and carry the best-in-breed, reliable electronic devices Preppers lust after.

Small is good — Being a smaller, but profitable, company is better than being a large, dying company. Take the pains and close stores that don’t matter. Get that laser focus on the niches that matter, and hire the people who can speak with authority in those areas.

I would be in Radio Shack every weekend again if it sold these kinds of items, and my daughter would be right by my side, thus ensuring another generation of geekdom. Radio Shack is not too late to be saved, but they need to quit thinking they’re Best Buy. Radio Shack needs to be the Apple for real geeks.

5 thoughts on “Saving Radio Shack”

  1. These are the exact sentiments that ran through my mind the last time I was in Radio Shack. My son is carrying on the tradition of nerd-dom in my family and will likely be an engineer. I would buy him an ‘Arduino-kit’ in a split-second if one were available at Radio Shack. I love those moments when we can work on electronics together.

    The retro, touchy-feelings might be emotional rhetoric, but it’s exactly that thing which we adults pine for our own children. Those memories of fascination and possibilities of invention.

    Let’s bring back the Radio Shack Christmases again.

  2. Tim,

    I am just not too sure if Tandy / Radio Shack is going to survive the niche market transition. The good old days of TRS80’s, Timex Sinclair and CoCo’s of our youth has essentially been displaced.

    The Arduino, Pi, Processing and IDEs are now on college syllabus(es) and the cool stuff like PLAs , FPGAs and HDLs are still out of reach for most. I mean, who is going to pay a few hundred to a thousand bucks for a Xilinx Spartan developer board when you can buy a Arduino Atmel kit for less than a hundred?

  3. Thank you. I have imposed a personal boycott on Radio Shack now for almost 10 years due to this very trend. I am actually so glad to see this dismal policy of theirs get thrown back in their faces: Get rid of the stupid consumer electronics schtick or die. I knew this day was coming when, before the turn of the century, I went in to buy a couple capacitors to fix some machine I can’t quite remember, and I was forced to hand them more than a dollar for two Chinese-made pieces of crap, one of which didn’t even work when I got them home. “How dare they,” I thought to myself. So Radio Shack execs, if you’re reading this:


  4. I currently have been going to my local radioshack and have been quite satisfied with the knowledge of the staff, the variety of parts and arduino systems available and on current sale. I really have never lost faith in the Radioshack brand they have just transformed slightly to meet the needs of a changing market this year. I have a lot of faith in all the changes that have been made to the stores this year and look forward to radioshacks progress in 2014.

  5. I too always lusted after the TSR80 kits, I learned the basic language on an old B&W TSR with integrated monitor/keyboard. Now I am a video professional in a small town, and depend on my RS store for audio & video components, connectors and cables. It’s all very well to order online when there’s plenty of time, but when something breaks and you need it NOW, where can you go? I am really angry at these retail clowns who think they can re-invent themselves and end up sinking their companies! When will they learn? Haven’t they seen enough of the WT Grants, KMarts, and countless others who forgot what made them great? If they close my Radio Shack, I will be furious!

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