It pains me to say this: I should have written an obituary for RadioShack years ago and filed it away for future use, as we journalists are notorious for doing with celebrities in shaky health. The demise of the once-mighty electronics retailer has felt inevitable for that long.
But as someone who’s cared about RadioShack for most of my life, I couldn’t bear to confront the bad news until it actually happened. Now it has: The company is filing for bankruptcy and winding down its operations.
What happens next is still a bit fuzzy. The company plans to turn over 1,500 to 2,400 of its 4,000 locations to its biggest shareholder, Standard General, which has an agreement in place with Sprint to use part of the floor space in many of those locations to sell phones and wireless plans. RadioShack plans to shutter the stores that aren’t part of Standard General’s plans.
There are some stores outside the U.S. that aren’t part of this process, and I don’t know that the brand name will vanish altogether. (Famous names rarely do—just ask the scavengers who acquired Polaroid and The Sharper Image.) But the company will never be what it once was.
You’ll note that I said above that I cared about RadioShack, not that I loved it. My own memories of the Shack go back to the mid-1970s, and even then, my kid self found it simultaneously alluring, annoying, and perplexing. The one three blocks from my home was full of fascinating gizmos, but they were crammed in with stuff that seemed to be held over from an earlier era of electronics as a hobby, like vacuum tubes. The payment process–which involved a clerk writing down your name and address even if you were 9 years old and had come in to buy a single D-cell battery–made every purchase into a joyless time sink.
Still, for everything about RadioShack that was odd and clunky, it was a fun place to explore. And it made a visionary move by introducing the TRS-80 microcomputer in 1977. Unglamorous as it was, even by the standards of the era, it played at least as important a role as the Apple II in jump-starting the PC revolution. (The Apple II was cooler, but the TRS-80 was available at a store near you, with a much lower starting price.)
When my father brought a TRS-80 home in the spring of 1978, it changed my life forever. So while I still can’t quite bring myself to say I ever loved RadioShack, I’m certainly grateful to it.
If RadioShack felt like a relic even in the 1970s, that’s because it was one. The company—which in its earliest days, called itself The Radio Shack—was founded in 1921 to sell gear to ham-radio enthusiasts. In 1955, the company had been been around for 34 years, and had one store, in downtown Boston. Over the next few years, it added another Boston store and two in Connecticut.
In 1962, the chain had seven stores, and was still so tiny that it could show drawings of all of them in its catalog:
Despite the expansion—or possibly because of it—RadioShack was struggling. In fact, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. That’s worth a moment of reflection: RadioShack almost went out of business before most people had ever heard of it.
In 1963, the company was acquired by Charles Tandy, a retailing genius from Texas who until then had been in the business of selling products to leather hobbyists. He not only rescued the company, but turned it into a business that just kept growing, long after his death in 1978.
Here’s a chart indicating how quickly RadioShack opened new stores—both company-owned and franchised—over its quarter-century of wild expansion. (I drew the numbers from the figures given in RadioShack catalogs preserved at the indispensable RadioShackCatalogs.com.)
The official store count remained at 7,000+ for years—at least through 2004, when the company published the final edition of its catalog. Then the dwindling began, to the current count of 4,000 stores.
RadioShack’s sheer pervasiveness was what made it a success for so long. Then it became an albatross. The company literally had more stores than it knew what to do with, and too many of them were in locations that made more sense in the 1970s and 1980s than in the 21st century. They were too cramped to sell big-screen TVs or stock a full range of PCs, which cut the stores out of some of the hottest product categories.
Basically, RadioShack knew how to succeed by adding more and more stores. As long as that was a viable strategy, it flourished. But I believe that its decline inevitably began the day it reached its maximum store count.
It’s certainly possible to formulate a vision for a RadioShack-sized store that might be appealing in 2015 and beyond—maybe one catering to maker culture, with products such as 3-D printers, Arduino boards, and Raspberry PI computers.
That would be in tune with the most successful product lines of its past, from ham radios to microcomputers—and the company even flirted with this direction in some recent remodels. It’s just that the nation doesn’t need 4,000 of those stores right now, and probably never will.
I’ll be sorry to see RadioShack go. But the thing is, consumer electronics retailing is an inherently fragile business. With the exception (so far) of Best Buy, every major national electronics chain has eventually collapsed, and usually a lot more quickly than RadioShack did. Its 94-year run was remarkable, especially the period that began after its first near-death experience in the early 1960s. Once the pain of the bankruptcy is over, we can go back to remembering the chain as the idiosyncratic, only-in-America success story that it once was.