I just read in the news today that Radio Shack will be closing over a thousand stores across the nation. I am sorry to see my beloved Radio Shack as she goes downhill. But it is not a surprise. Ever since the early 90s I have been watching the store shoot herself in the foot every time she re-thinks her image. I knew they were starting to go downhill as soon as they started to devote more floor space to cell phones and their accessories than to electronic components. Radio Shack needs to embrace her inner geek to survive.
Why do I address Radio Shack in the feminine form? Because that bitch has taken a lot of my money and now it looks like she is leaving me. Must have heard that I was having an affair with Spark Fun. I guess it’s not really her fault.
Radio Shack is in a tough spot. If you want cell phones, tablet PCs, and accessories for these products, you can’t compete with Target, Best Buy, Sears, Wall Mart, and other big box stores. Likewise you can’t compete with Digikey, Jameco, Newark and other major electronics companies that cater to what I would call the power hobbyist. For the more progressive electronic enthusiast, open source is the way to go. We shop at SparkFun.com and Adafruit.com.
So with all this competition will Radio Shack survive?
The sad news is that it may not survive. But I am optimistic. There is a revolution going on with people making high tech doo dads, robots, and other gadgets. They are almost totally dependent on internet shopping to get components. What is missing is the visual experience. Sometimes you need to touch a product to feed your imagination. That’s why Maker Fairs are so popular. People go to get ideas, and touch before they buy. Radio Shack can fill this need by operating as a retail outlet for a few quality internet companies. This sounds backwards, but bear with me.
My lovely wife can go online and buy dresses and shoes from Macy.com. But 9 times out of 10 when the item she orders arrives she sends it back. Why? Because the little picture on the screen of her iPad isn’t a good enough representation of how it will look when it arrives. The same is true with some electronic and maker components.
Imagine building something out of LEGO by ordering the individual blocks you need, without having any to start with. That is the one drawback of online shopping, you just can’t get a feel for how it will work together without touching it. That is why people buy LEGO kits with instructions. However once you have enough kits most people generally put together something new out of the parts. That’s why I think LEGO would be smart to sell individual parts in retail stores. It would be like build a bear but with LEGO. The same should work with Radio Shack.
I imagine Radio Shack working out a deal with Adafruit.com, SparkFun.com, and other internet companies to place some of their products on the shelves. Sure people can shop in the store, then order the same thing on line. But human nature is what it is, people will pay extra to have instant gratification.
Then Radio Shack needs to embrace a more flexible workforce. There are a lot of people out there who would love to work at Radio Shack for a few hours a week. Electronics enthusiasts, electrical engineering students, hobbyists, and retired geeks would all jump at a chance to work for maybe ten hours a week showing people how to build stuff, answering their questions, and showing off their inventions. It would inspire people and get them to buy, buy, and buy. Sure the store needs to keep a core group of salesmen, but they could also have a dozen or so geeks available for a few bucks an hour to show up and play for pay.
Show, Tell, Build, Sell.
I am sure there are many obstacles to this idea, but I think that Radio Shack can still be a successful enterprise if they simply embraced what is to come, rather than trying to glom on to a market that is already well served.
Radio Shack, don’t leave me. Embrace your inner Geek and stay a while.