Sunday, February 7, 2016

What Could Have Been

Radio Shack is no more. I am both sad, and not surprised. I got my start with Radio Shack components, 80 in One kits, and Forest Mims books. I relied on Radio Shack for resistors, and my introduction to Integrated Circuits. They didn't have everything, but they had most of what I needed through college building computers and robots. If I needed some wire, or a 15k 1/4watt resistor at 8pm on a Thursday, Radio Shack was the answer.

Tandy wire and cable made some wonderful coax and other wire. The RG-58 was really nice, and available both with a braided center core and with a solid center core. Of course they sold connectors to go with it. Asking a clerk for help, they happily would cut custom lengths, or suggest pre-made cables.

Somewhere along they way, Radio Shack changed. After college many things were in flux. The computers that people built at home were no longer chips (yes, Radio Shack sold 8085, and 8080 CPU's plus others), but were boards. PC's that people built were now plug together boards. Radio Shack only sold some expansion boards, and pre-assembled computers.

Radios changed as well. Fewer and fewer people were buying component stereos, and self installing car stereos. I am sure the sales at Radio Shack declined during the late 80s and early 90s. To compensate, Radio Shack expanded into television sales, and other consumer electronics. Eventually Radio Shack was getting heavily into the cell phone sales for all the carriers.

Expansion of the consumer electronics area caused the reduction in the component floor space. The clerks didn't want to waste their time selling 10uf capacitors when a customer wanted a new cell phone. The knowledge of the staff was on the decline. I've heard stories about EE students that wanted to work at Radio Shack were actively discouraged because they might spend too much time helping with components.

The last couple of years, the president of Radio Shack was really making an effort to "fix" the decline of the brand. There were engagements with hackaday and other hobbiest web communities, The communities were slightly hostile, but most of the ideas were too little too late. The brand was bought by Sprint in 2015, and most of the stores have closed.

What Could Radio Shack Have Been?

I've been going to Micro Center for a bunch of years. They mostly were the place to get reasonably priced PC's. They had all the accessories, boards, power supplies cases, and cables. Their prices are good, for a retail operation. They had a closeout section that often had some amazing deals.

PC prices have plunged. When a PC or laptop used to cost $1000-1500 in the early 2000's, now a modern PC or laptop only cost $300-500. The gaming systems are not making as much money, it seems, and the book sales are almost non-existent. The shelves are still full of accessory boards, CPU's cases and power supplies.

Micro Center has expanded into the hobby space. They have a very large selection of Arduino boards and accessories. The Rasberry Pi selection is equally full. The prices are as good as mail order as well. At Christmas time, they had Rasberry Pi Zero boards for $5, but were sold out quickly. The aisles were full when I went there yesterday. I don't have any insight to the income this is generating, but people are buying the the hobby electronics, and I will continue to.

What if Radio Shack had followed the hobbyist trends? Well Radio Shack did sell Arduino boards toward the end. The prices were very high (I think I remember looking at an Uno for about $24). It was something I couldn't justify. What if they had kept the prices better? With the mall space rent as high as it is, they might have gone out of business sooner. Hard to say.

Do you think, if Radio Shack had done a better job with hobby electronics, they'd still be around?