Requiem For Radio Shack.

      11 Comments on Requiem For Radio Shack.

Special author’s note: The March 19 Off Grid Ham article mentioned Radio Shack only as a minor side story. So many readers commented about their experiences with the fabled electronics retailer that I thought it was worthwhile to address the topic in more detail. I wrote the following article for another blog in 2015. It has been edited & updated for republishing here. ©2015 ©2021

A true legend. radio shack

Radio Shack has been on the register of lost legends for several years now, and I’m still saddened by it. First, because it was a key player in my choosing to go into electronics professionally. Second, because it has no replacement. It was the only one of its breed; there is no heir to continue the legacy. Half-serious prophecies of a big comeback occasionally float around, but no one truly believes it will happen. Founded in 1921, yet another thread in the colorful fabric of America went the way of the vacuum tube and Betamax tapes.

Days of my youth. radio shack

In its heyday, Radio Shack was 7500 stores strong.  It was a wonderland of electronic components, parts, tools, batteries, kits, how-to books, wire, connectors, and everything else. When I was growing up in Naperville, Illinois, there were three of them within minutes of my house. Sheesh, there was only one McDonald’s restaurant in Naperville at the time.

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 dorky passion I might have become an insurance salesman…not that there’s anything wrong with that, but no young kid dreams of being an insurance salesman.

My best buddy at the time, Andy, lived within walking distance of a Radio Shack. I was envious. Andy was the most technically skilled in my circle of geek friends and he hit “the Shack” even more often than I did. It was a big deal when the new catalog came out every year and we’d spend hours picking through it. I lost track of Andy after high school and don’t know what career path he took, but I’ll bet he isn’t selling insurance either.

It was the only place in the world where I could get a PNP transistor on a 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– which I still own and use. Long before I ever set foot inside of a college engineering lab I had a strong electronics education from “Radio Shack University.”



A fuse that took years to blow. radio shack

The quirky retailer that helped me turn a boyhood fascination with electronics into a lucrative and lengthy career as an adult was swirling the toilet for years before it finally expired. It was painful to watch. The world moved on and Radio Shack kept changing lanes until the road, or rather, the money, ran out. They tried reinventing themselves. First as a computer shop, then a consumer electronics repair vendor, a high end audio dealer, a cellphone emporium, and in a final desperate grasp for relevance, on-site smartphone & tablet computer repair. None of it reversed the inevitable and easily predictable dirtnap.

RS still technically exists in the form of an unremarkable e-commerce website and a few physical dealers located inside other businesses. It exists, yes, but just barely and without even a tiny speck of the original soul and gusto. The Best Buys and Amazons of the world rolled right over them. We cannot blame changing tastes or use the tired trope, “no one wants to build anything anymore!” All the cool stuff RS used to offer is still available from other sellers, and it would seem, they are doing well.

The last time I shopped at Radio Shack was to buy a specialty electrical connector. The writing was literally on the walls. What used to be hundreds of square feet of components & supplies had been shaved down to one small section shoved into the corner of the store as an afterthought. Apparently, they needed to make room for cellphone accessories, toys, and cheesy gadgets. You know, the kind of everyday crap that can be bought at any of a million other places. It wasn’t fun or unique anymore. That was the moment I knew it was over.

No one is totally guilty, and no one is totally innocent.

I hate to admit it, but I’m part of the reason Radio Shack is now just a happy recollection of another time. We all are. Better & cheaper sources for supplies came along and we took the bait (hellooo, internet!). It’s very difficult to turn a profit selling small quantities of diodes and capacitors, much less with the overhead of a mall storefront. 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 the early days of electronics and their time had passed. Maybe in that way it’s not their fault they ended up in terminal decline. It’s just the natural cycle of things. I hope my departed retail friend knows generations of geeks are grateful to them for supplying the seeds for what would grow into fulfilling lifetime hobbies and careers.

11 thoughts on “Requiem For Radio Shack.

  1. Alan Peterson

    I go back a little earlier than that; my main hangout as a younger man was Lafayette Radio in Syosset NY.

    Imported stereos, color organ “light shows”, phono cartridges, FM converters for the car (!), shortwave radios and Japanese guitars…and all the parts I needed. They folded way too soon.

    You can find old Lafayette catalogs at Forty-plus years later, I still miss them.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Lafayette Radio was before my time, but I know where you’re coming from. Yeah, you can still just order whatever you need on line, but it’s not anywhere near as much fun.

  2. Dennis Jones

    Julian it is good to see someone not wax eloquent (not that you didn’t) but then lament the passing of a business that needed to become an internet online ordering company. Better minds than mine would have seen that coming. I am afraid I would have been one of the torpedoes that sunk the RadioShack ship if I had worked for Tandy as well. I just didn’t see what has happened coming as it was coming! I think we are, as electronics consumers, very blessed to have so many electronics retailers that use the internet as their brick & mortar replacement business address. I too enjoyed going to Radio Shack and getting a part or two but towards the lst few years as I saw them go through the throes of death and finally as you put it “took a dirtnap” was painful. However now, you in Finland and I in Iowa can at the same time order the same electronic part and expect to see it at our doorstep in record time. Now THAT is improvement… at least until the $6B infrastructure takes a dirtnap! 73 Mr. White… good article

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Dennis, a few things to clarify first…my name is not Julian and I’m not in Finland. I think you mixed me up with Julian OH8STN, of whom I am a big fan. It’s certainly no insult to be associated with him, but I want to set the record straight.

      Radio Shack “dirt napped” because its time had simply passed, in my opinion. Even if they had leveraged the internet in the beginning, they still would have undoubtedly closed most of their stores anyway. This is a sad story with no single entity to blame. I’m just glad to have it while it lasted.

  3. Randall Krippner

    I probably know more about Radio Shack than the average person because I dealt with the company a lot back in the 80s. I liked RS but it also drove me crazy at the same time. I wrote for a couple of small magazines that covered the Color Computer and some of the things the company did when it came to their computers were downright odd, and certainly not very consumer friendly. I also serviced and upgraded a lot of TRS-80 computers back then because the Shack’s costs for “official” upgrades and repairs to the computers were insane. RS charged hundreds of dollars to add 16K of RAM to their Mod-III computers, and you had to send the computer off to a service center. All you had to do was plug 8 chips into sockets already on the circuit board that cost less than $100. The same was true for the floppy drive systems – way overpriced and, even worse, with half the capacity of the drives on other systems. The 512K Coco III computer had overheating problems the company knew about but refused to acknowledge or do anything about. The list goes on and on.

    The company kept making very odd decisions, like plunging into the PC clone market with underpowered, overpriced and often incompatible computers to try to compete against IBM, Osborn and others in the market. They came out with a “portable” version of the TRS-80 Mod-IV in the same form factor as the Osborn portable CP/M computer, but the Mod-IV was already obsolete at the time and was little more than an overpriced novelty.

    I think what really killed them off was the decision to sell cellphones and cell service. I could walk into any store in the country to try to buy something, and stand there waiting to try to buy something while all of the salespeople were sitting around trying to solve problems people were having with their phones. It’s hard to make money when your employees are too busy trying to deal with non-profitable cell phone customers who can’t figure out how to operate their phones when they should be trying to sell actual profitable merchandise to real customers. There were dozens of times I gave up waiting and just walked out because I got tired of waiting for someone to come and take my money.

    What happened to the company is a shame but to be honest I don’t see how it could have survived even if its management had been smarter.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      I know from your previous comments that you have a deep history with Radio Shack, so I’m glad that you stopped by again to add some color to this bittersweet topic.

      There is a quite a bit of information on the internet about what exactly happened to RS, but aside from the business end of it, I think they just weren’t cool anymore. And you are right…they “jumped the shark” when they went all-in on cellphones. It seemed like “America’s Technology Store” was always behind the curve.

      It was fun while it lasted and there will never be anything like it again. Thanks for your insight.

      1. Randall Krippner

        Not cool any more is a very good way to put it. Their reputation began to decline back in, oh, the mid 1980s? I’m not sure why but a lot of electronics hobbyists and amateur radio people back then started to get the impression that RS was selling substandard parts and equipment. As far as I know that wasn’t actually true, but you know how rumors can spread. A lot of people started to look at RS as more a vendor of cheap, sub-standard audio equipment and electronics toys rather than a serious electronics and computer store.

        Of course around the same time a lot of computer companies and electronics vendors were having issues and made some disastrous decisions. Radio Shack managed to hang on longer than a lot of others, but it never managed to find its own niche. It was always like the company was always scrambling to find the “next big thing” that would turn into a cash cow for it.

        1. Chris Warren Post author

          I don’t believe RS sold low-grade stuff either, but back in the 80s what difference would it have made? It’s not like you could have gone somewhere else. Other than swap meets, where could anyone get this stuff without jumping through a lot of hoops?

          No, I think it was just a natural cycle. I guess we can blame the internet, but I think it would have happened anyway.

  4. Eric G

    They bet wrong. They saw that selling phone contracts was incredibly high margin and didn’t require much inventory. They didn’t see the no-contract post paid user, who was their bread and butter (NINJA style contracts with Sprint). They didn’t see smartphones on the horizon. All the while I wanted them to figure out how to transform themselves into the Build-A-Bear for robotics and nerds. But then again, that takes a lot of space and highly trained staff, two things they didn’t have.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Radio Shack was on its way down before the iPhone came along. I do like the idea of being a place for nerds and robotics geeks, but weren’t they kind of like that already? I think they just dumbed it down until they were just a small-footprint version of Best Buy. Once you’re like everyone else, no one will miss you when you’re gone.

  5. Richard

    Interesting to me as we have had very much the same situation here with first of all and a goodly amount of time ago a company called Tandy who seemed very similar to RS and subsequently and very much more recently with Maplins.

    Both of these had large retail presences in most major towns here and both have recently morphed into online offers which are really a pale shadow of their former glory. Certainly Maplins cited the internet and Amazon as the main cause of their fall in popularity although Tandy was long gone before this and for probably the same reasons as RS.

    The main thing I feel you don’t get on the internet is the ability to be “hands on” with what you are looking for and be able to examine personally the wares that you are trying to purchase.

    Some one I know commented recently that these sort of shops have gone the way of the Dodo and the problem is largely of our own making.

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