A Eulogy for Radio Shack

original 1921 radio shack logo
The Original 1921 Radio Shack Logo

It’s been a long time coming, and the company’s been doing poorly for at least a decade, but it’s still sad to see tech gadget stalwart Radio Shack declare bankruptcy today. Rumors swirl around what will happen to the over 5000 stores they have worldwide, with some predicting that Amazon will acquire some as demo outlets while others suggest Sprint is exploring options for making them branded mobile stores, but whatever happens, over half the retail outlets will be shut down in the near future.

Started way back in 1921 by brothers, Theodore and Milton Deutschmann, who wanted to provide equipment for the then-nascent field of amateur, or ham radio. In 1962 the company, almost bankrupt, was acquired by Tandy Corporation and had a good run until the growth of online retailers like Amazon dramatically, and ultimately fatally, cut into their business. And so it ends.

I have always had a soft spot for “The Shack” with its TRS-80 (yes, we all called it the “Trash 80”) entrant into the nascent personal computer world in the mid-70’s and stores full of more wires, adapters, plugs and electronic doo-hickeys than you could shake a stick at. In more recent years, the company pushed into radio-controlled and electronics toys aggressively, doing well around Christmastime each year.

I can also remember when I was young that Radio Shack had “battery cards”, a punch card that was essentially a battery subscription service: You’d go into The Shack with your (free!) card, and they’d give you a battery and stamp your card for the month. Planned well, you could save a ton of money on batteries, and the cards were quite popular in their day.

trs-80 radio shack personal computer
The Radio Shack TRS-80

But the Achilles heel of Radio Shack has always been quality control. We’d buy radio controlled cars, helicopters and other devices, just to have them broken — or not work out of the box — time and again. It’s the curse of low-budget overseas manufacturing, but Radio Shack never had the economic leverage that Walmart, another firm that relies on cheap goods, and so reliability suffered. Eventually, it was easier for us to jump onto Amazon and buy our adapters, wires, cables and gizmos online, knowing they might be 20% more expensive and take a day or two to arrive, but they were also going to be 10x more reliable too.

last latest radio shack logoStill, it’s a sad day when the biggest vendor of electronic components shutters its stores. Read the bio of any of the tech innovators and you’ll find that they hung out at a local Radio Shack, picking up transistors, chips, wires and other components to create their own gadgets. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s autobiography Woz has a section about the Palo Alto (California) Radio Shack, for example, and he talked about how it played an important role in his early hacking and phracking efforts.

A company is only as good as the goods and services it delivers today, however, and it’s dangerous to rely on brand goodwill or reputation, regardless of how large you have become. Not to mention that so much of retail has shifted online in the last decade. Theodore and Milton would be bewildered — and inspired — by the modern retail channels, passionate about serving their small gearhead community and excited about tackling the 21st century. Unfortunately, they’re long gone, and even with a recent change of CEO, Radio Shack Corporation couldn’t stop their headlong plunge into the abyss.

After over 90 years of selling nerds and hobbyists everywhere the gadgets and gizmos we so love, it’s a sad day to see the company go out of business.

We’ll miss The Shack. Even if only for the batteries.

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