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An insider’s account of the fall of Radio Shack

When I heard Radio Shack was going to be open on Thanksgiving day, I wondered why they would bother. The few Radio Shack stores near me are deserted on normal days, so I didn’t know why anyone would take time out of Thanksgiving Day to go to Radio Shack.

Based on this sad account from an employee who spent hard time working at Radio Shack, I was probably even more right than I thought. The first story, from Black Friday 2004, tells the tale of a store that, when all was said and done, probably lost money on Black Friday. And this was in an era when tech blogs would say, “Believe it or not, there are worse places to be at 6am on Black Friday than Radio Shack.”

I’m not sure anybody believes it now.

To me it’s a sad story. Partly because it’s sad how the store treats its employees–though I avoided shopping at Best Buy for a decade because of how they treat employees, so that’s not a problem limited to Radio Shack–but partly because it was one a great retail empire.

Quit snickering. I’m serious. In the 1980s as new technologies emerged, if you lived far from a major city, it didn’t matter–you could still get new technology at Radio Shack. The prices were lower in the big cities with their emerging “superstores”–stores like Best Buy and the departed Tipton, Silo, and Circuit City–but by the time you factored in the expense and time commitment to drive to the city, many people were better off buying it at Radio Shack. And many did.

Even in the city, there was plenty of reason to go to Radio Shack. When you needed a battery for that cordless phone, regardless of where you bought it, Radio Shack was the most likely place to have one that would work right. For hard-to-find computer supplies like printer ribbons for obscure printers, Radio Shack almost always had something that worked, and had it in stock. When you needed cables for your VCR or your monster cell phone, Radio Shack had you covered.

The illustrations in the eulogy show it, alternating between the wonders of the 1980s and the pathetic offerings of recent years.

And then there was the back of the store, where they sold discrete electronic components. If you were building or fixing something, Radio Shack was the place to get supplies. In the last article I published in a national magazine, I recommended several specific Radio Shack parts. There are cheaper places to get those parts, but nothing more convenient–even though the number of Radio Shack stores is a fraction of what it was 30 years ago.

The eulogy hints at that past glory, saying, “I’ll bet Radio Shack was great once.” It was. In spite of the missteps of the last decade or two, they were once fearsome.

I’m sure some day I’ll have to explain to my kids what Radio Shack was.

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5 thoughts on “An insider’s account of the fall of Radio Shack”

    1. I knew Hudson’s Bay. They bought one of the local St. Louis department store chains from Macy’s when Macy’s bought its parent company. Hudson’s Bay approached me about a penetration testing job a couple of years ago. I loved the company, but they would have been playing me out of position and we all knew it. Too bad they didn’t have a threat and vulnerability analyst position open…

  1. Radio Shack did pretty good for a leather company–until they lost their direction.

    I am old enough to remember when the local Tandy Leather Store closed their doors one Monday for remodeling and opened the doors the next Monday as Radio Shack.

    1. That’s awesome. There’s actually still one Tandy Leather store near me. There used to be a Radio Shack across the street from it. The leather store is still there.

      Reminds me of a story. Back in my BBS days, a guy told me the story of him shopping for his first computer. He went to Radio Shack, told the sales guy he was also looking at Adam computers, and the guy said, “You don’t want to buy a computer from a toy company.”

      “Oh, so you want me to buy one from a leather craft company instead?” he retorted.

      So he ended up buying a computer from a calculator company–he bought a Commodore.

  2. Hmmm…. Several Radio Shacks locally (seven or more) all trying different ‘faces’ on for Christmas, and one Tandy Leather that has survived several moves (I used them a lot in college: remember those braided belts?).

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