By: Chris Warren.
As this blog has discussed in the past, many classic American businesses are disappearing in an economy that is supposed to be jumping back to life. The losses are sad for nostalgia but also bring hope because times change and for every business that goes extinct a newer version takes its place and gets a shot at becoming a legend. In theory, it’s a zero-sum game.
That Radio Shack is soon going to be on the register of lost legends truly bothers me. First, because it was a key player in my choosing to go into electronics professionally, and second, because it has no replacement. It is the only one of its breed; there is no fresh contender coming up behind it. For now Radio Shack is still open for business as usual but no one is fooled by corporate prophecies of a big comeback. Depending on which financial analyst you want to believe, Radio Shack has between one and ten months’ worth of operating capital and no viable course to profitability. We are in death watch mode. Founded in 1921, yet another thread in the colorful fabric of America will almost certainly go the way of the vacuum tube and Betamax tapes.
Radio Shack was once a wonderland of electronic components, parts, tools, batteries, kits, how-to books, wire, connectors, and everything else. As a young person I would stop at “the Shack” at least once a week, oftentimes more, eager to drop my paltry teenage income on electronic goodies. If not for the readily available supply of raw materials for my hobby I might have ended up being an insurance salesman. It was the only place in the world where I could get a PNP transistor at 3:00 on Sunday afternoon. And I often needed one, among other things. I’ve built transmitters and power supplies and countless experiments entirely from parts purchased off the shelf at Radio Shack. They sold me the very first test instrument I bought with my own money–an analog multimeter. Long before I ever saw the inside of a college engineering lab I had a strong electronics education from “Radio Shack Tech.”
The sad reality is that the quirky retailer that helped me turn a boyhood fascination with electronics into a lucrative career as an adult has been on a slow slide down for years. The world moved on and Radio Shack didn’t keep up the pace. They’ve tried reinventing themselves as a computer shop, a consumer electronics repair vendor, a high end audio dealer, a cellphone emporium, and most recently, on-site smartphone & tablet computer repair. None of it stuck. The Best Buys and Amazons of the world rolled right over them. The last time I shopped at Radio Shack was half a decade ago to buy a specialty electrical connector. What used to be hundreds of square feet of cool geek stuff had been shaved down to one tiny little section in the back. It wasn’t fun anymore. The exciting vibe I knew and loved was gone.
I hate to admit it, but I’m part of the reason Radio Shack is on the way out. Better & cheaper sources for supplies came along and I took the bait (hellooo, internet!). No one makes money selling single diodes and capacitors anymore, much less from a store in a mall. Did I let an old friend down, or did the old friend let me down? It’s a trick question: Old friends sometimes drift apart and it’s not really anyone’s “fault.” I’m not sure if anything could have saved Radio Shack. They served their market well since they early days of electronics and there is nowhere for them to go. Maybe in that way it’s not even their fault they are in terminal decline. It’s just the natural cycle of things. Before my old friend passes on, I want it to know generations of geeks are grateful for the fun and the education, and in an unknown number of cases, supplying the seeds for what would grow into a fulfilling career.