Can the Maker Movement Save RadioShack?

RadioShack is hoping LEDs and robotics enthusiasts can jump-start its ailing business.

RadioShack is truly a relic of an earlier electronic age—the word "radio" eclipsed only, in outdatedness and unattractiveness, by the word "shack." The nerd electronics chain has been the butt of retail jokes for years; the Onion jested back in 2007, "Even CEO Can't Figure Out How RadioShack Still in Business."

It seems RadioShack can't win for losing. They hired a hotshot CEO and paid him over $20 million; his big idea was changing the store's name to The Shack. Then the company tried selling iPhones—and did indeed sell a bunch of them—but the margin on Apple products was so small that their overall sales receipts plummeted, losses rose, dividend was suspended and Fitch downgraded their debt to CCC (There is no F in the Fitch scale). In the most recent quarter ending in April, total RadioShack revenues were down again—by $65 million.

But there is a single, bright spark in the gloom. RadioShack now finds itself closely tied to one of the most disruptive and exciting new trends in the entire economy: the Maker movement, in which tens of thousands of hobbyists make supercool projects using robotics, microcontrollers, and 3-D printing.

Last week at the Maker Faire in the Bay Area, RadioShack launched a cobranded product line with Make magazine/Maker Faire. The line includes LEDs, robotics kits for kids, microcontrollers with Wi-Fi, a line of mini-PCs, and tools. All of these items will be sold exclusively through RadioShack stores and by Make online.

This is the first major cobranded product line for Make and the first Make line to be found in thousands of physical retail stores. "Adding to the popular Make line of kits, like 'Getting Started with Arduino,' the new cobranded product lineup from Maker Media and RadioShack combine Maker Media's strength in cultivating and growing the maker movement with RadioShack's strong retail footprint and DIY heritage," Dale Dougherty, founder and CEO of Maker Media, said at the launch.

Last year, RadioShack started stocking Arduino, the wildly popular Italian line of open-source electronics, and has had a presence at Maker Faires on both coasts for several years. In some ways, it's a natural alliance. RadioShack has a history of innovation in retail, selling the first consumer personal computer in 1977, and it is among the earliest cell phone retailers. The company is now allying itself with a disruptive force that some foresee overtaking the entire consumer economy, replacing generic items made in China with mass, home-designed, DIY, hyperlocal, and customizable products.

But that future is at least a couple of years away. Is the Maker movement and its cachet big enough to bring RadioShack's struggling business with it? That's a pretty big project.

[Image: Flickr user Jen Dodd]

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