Radio Shack and the Era of Tinkering

The Slate posted a nonsense article, “The Era of Tinkering is Over,” [link] which really pissed me off. I don’t even want to provide the link but I have to because it is the right thing to do. I read Slate occasionally; their writers are sometimes on-the-mark and sometimes way off the mark. In the case of this article, the author seems to have jumped into the deep water of knowing shit about tinkering, in that the author knows zero about tinkering and hasn’t even done a modicum of research. On a positive note, maybe the author will learn to do some basic research before authoring such nonsense.

I cannot say I have been a life-long tinkerer, but the best portion of my life has involved various bits of tinkering, from maybe 10 years old to last weekend. Growing up I had two favorite places to visit. My local library was located about 3 blocks from my house, a literal 15 minute walk. I would live in the air-conditioned comfort of my public library in the summers. The other place I like to spend money was Radio Shack. My buddy, Robert, and I would walk from his house or ride our bikes to our local Radio Shack. We could take a short-cut across our elementary school playground and pull our bikes through a gap in the privacy fence into the Radio Shack backlot.

My KCMO neighborhood Radio Shack did not look much unlike the one in the picture below. The sign above my store was smaller, the facade was a dark, rustic wood. I distinctly remember this feature because Robert and I were always suspicious of the wasps hanging around the wood siding. There were other stores adjacent to my Radio Shack and I cannot remember what those stores were, they made such a great impression on me. As far as I was concerned Radio Shack was the only store in this small strip.

A close approximation of my local radio shack. My Radio Shack resembled more of a real shack, though, as I remember the store having a wood facade and less brick.

An old white fellow ran the local Radio Shack for a while. He didn’t care much for Robert and I. He would grumble around, and after a few minutes herd us out if we didn’t buy anything. Before being ushered out, we would price buttons, switches, resistors and such for whatever project we had in mind. We were heavy into model rockets at the time and would build elaborate launching systems to launch 5, 10, or even 20 rockets simultaneously. We would buy Estes rockets from another store I liked, by the way. We also repaired electronic equipment. One year, we ran across a neighbor who sold a pile of old Army surplus radio equipment. One of the big radios didn’t work but it would act like it would. We tested the all of the fuses in the radio and determined a few were burnt-out. Using money from mowing lawns, we bought some replacement fuses and got the radio working. Later, a black fellow ran the Radio Shack. He would sell us broken merchandise once in a while for next to nothing. Resistors were easy to find and replace, for instance. One summer, the store manager sold us several color organs really cheap; I think we got 4 or 5 for something like $10. In 1980, $10 was the equivalent of mowing two yards.  Both Robert and I knew how to use VOA meters (volt-ohm-amp) and we tore down those color organs to diagnose which resistors

My friend, Robert, and I would buy broken disco lights, repair them, and sell them at our garage sales.

My friend, Robert, and I would buy broken disco lights, repair them, and sell them at our garage sales.

were bad. We would then spend a few cents to buy new resistors, solder them back onto the circuit board, test with our music. We would blast Billy Squier, Rush, Def Lepperd, KISS, and whatever else we liked and knew would torment the neighbors. Robert and I would then have yard sales to sell the stuff we made or repaired.

Why all of this hyperbole?

As I do with some of my writing I like to provide a back story to demonstrate where I come from to show the relationship I have with something topic or interest.

I love the Maker Movement, the creation of Makerspaces in towns and cities across the United States, the introduction of programming, 3D printers and 3D scanners in middle and high schools in school districts across America. My own beginnings started with Radio Shack so I have a soft spot for this franchise. People who report without feeling a connection to their topic come across not only as ignorant of their subject matter but also risk missing some underlying facts.

Like the Maker Movement. Or that “tinkering” is anything but dead. As the Arduino blog clearly substantiates [link], tinkering is not only alive and well, tinkering is thriving more so now than ever before.

So, if tinkering is thriving and more robust than ever before, then what has happened to Radio Shack?

My analysis argues several points. First, Radio Shack opted to involve itself in a market already saturated – smartphones. The partnership with Sprint was not good business acumen in my opinion. Wal-mart, Verizon, AT&T, Office Depot, even my local Kroger grocery store does smartphones. Add in Amazon and other online resellers and the smartphone market doesn’t make much sense. Especially since other major players like AT&T and Verizon have stores devoted 100% to smartphones staffed with typically five or more employees during peak hours. I’ve never seen more than two employees in my current local Radio Shack.

My local Radio Shack devotes about 50% of floor space to smartphones. Gone are the days of cool electronics and gadgets and parts and stereo equipment. Sure, my local store has a utility cabinet of electronic parts, relegated to a place two aisles from the back of the store. But anyone who walks into my Radio Shack will be confronted with all smartphone models and accessories and plans. Big deal. Then, if a customer wants to buy something unrelated to cell phones, the customer will have to wait until the Radio Shack agent finishes discussing cell phone plans, or trouble-shooting a cell phone problem. I’ve mentioned a number of issues here, but I can summarize these comments by identifying three problems.

Radio Shack stores demonstrate a lack of commitment towards providing enough staff to accommodate customer traffic. Next, Radio Shack sold-out consumer confidence in electronics by thinking they could make a quick dollar in the smartphone market. Then, Radio Shack failed to realize a few years ago the Era of Tinkering was still thriving, and more importantly, evolving.

What could Radio Shack have done differently?

Look; it is not enough to be critical of some thing without offering some solutions or at least some ideas of what could be differently done.

Radio Shack’s historical success was based not solely upon selling end products but providing the parts and tools for people to build, repair, or modify items they already owned. They also supported HAM & CB radio operators who often needed replacement parts, antennas, and other accessories. Today’s electronics are sophisticated; there is no doubt about that. However, many consumer electronics are also based on simple modular designs.

I have a broken VIZIO LCD television. One weekend, I disassembled the TV. After I had the case open I found there are really only two circuit boards driving the LCD, a control board containing all of the IC chips and software for decoding the signal and providing us with a user interface. The other board is the power board which controls how AC power is distributed to the control board. I have the problem narrowed down to one or two IC chips on the controller board. I’d like to simply buy a replacement controller board but I can’t; they are in high demand. VIZIO made some really crap boards a few years ago. The IC chips, however, can be bought online. For about $35 I can order both IC chips I need. Then, I can spend some hours one weekend and de-solder the old IC chips and solder the new IC chips, and test my handiwork.

Now, not everyone would want to do all of this. That is fine. But, to train a young person to perform the service work is not a big deal. Or, to train a young person to trouble-shoot problems so people can have their electronics fixed locally might be a good idea. After all, we once did this decades ago. Families might go without TV for a week or more until a local repair person got around to figuring out what ailed the giant beast of a TV. The economics of those days made repair worthwhile. A TV might be a month’s salary or more. Today, a LCD TV might be a week’s salary or less.

Being able to repair televisions locally might help reduce some of the e-waste. People might be able to have a LCD in every room if they could pick up a cheap “refurbished” LCD from a local reseller.

OEMs also need to be more friendly to repair centers. OEMs do not seem to produce many replacement parts. The replacement parts I’ve bought are from 3rd party vendors, not OEMs. The argument OEMs make is they would rather sell consumers a new product than keep an older model alive. The “green” part of me finds that offensive. For instance, Apple Co.’s intransigence to allowing people to replace glass and digitizers for broken iPhones is part of the problem. Apple takes what could be a vibrant economy and takes a punitive stance towards those who keep that technology alive and make a buck while doing so. Companies like VIZIO, Sanyo, Sony, Samsung, and LG could really inspire economic growth by allowing people to better service devices by providing OEM parts or recommend quality 3rd party replacement parts. Now, we have OEMs making devices, we have 3rd party vendors making replacement parts, we have people engaging in perhaps cottage-type industries repairing electronics.

One of biggest failures I see in Radio Shack is their lack of vision. The people I knew growing up who ran Radio Shack could tell you how to read a resistor, a capacitor, who knew something about voltages and transformers. Not today. So, as Make and the Maker Movement grows in strength and penetrates K-12 education and even into higher education despite some resistance, the ability of Radio Shack to serve that population has diminished.

My local Radio Shack has some Make components, and a small selection of Littlebits modules, but not a huge selection. Enough to make Make interesting. No 3D scanners. No 3D printers.

Is it possible Radio Shack could have leveraged its presence to bring technology to smaller cities and towns, becoming the nexus of distribution, learning, advice and service for these innovative technologies?

Radio Shack could have been at the forefront of the Make movement. Instead of partnering with Sprint, perhaps they should have partnered with Makerbot, Make, and Littlebits. Furthermore, Radio Shack somehow felt they needed a store in every tiny town. I don’t think this is truly necessary. Perhaps they need a GIS professional with experience in location analysis to help figure out where they need to place stores.

What would be nice for Radio Shack to consider is building stores or finding retail space not only with enough square footage for cool tech devices for people to help people fabricate designs, but enough square footage to perhaps offer classes or courses for local populations to learn how to use these new technologies. Large cities have many venues for learning technologies. Large cities, like Chicago, Denver, and New York City have a critical mass of educated people to help train interested parents and youth. Is it possible Radio Shack could have leveraged its presence to bring technology to smaller cities and towns, becoming the nexus of distribution, learning, advice and service for these innovative technologies?

I honestly do not have the answer to my question. I don’t have an MBA. But, neither did Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs, but then, neither does 13-year old Quin Etnyre. (ISTE article)

Part of Radio Shack’s problem was competing in a saturated smartphone market. Another problem was Radio Shack competing with online resellers of electronic parts. That battle can’t be won, really. There are people who do not want to buy online, who want local expertise, who want to see a device in action, and who want local support, though. These are all within Radio Shack’s domain to control, if they can think outside the box, if they can break-down the corporate mind-think which has set Radio Shack on a ruinous course. Office Depot does OK; if people realized they could purchase online many of the same products found at Office Depot and save 75% Office Depot might be in big trouble. Or, Staples, for that matter.

I feel for Radio Shack. I really do. And, I’m disappointed each and every time I step in my local Radio Shack. The atmosphere is not what I remember growing up. No stores have any of the ambiance of the former Radio Shack stores from my youth. Radio Shack stores are not trendy, not cool, not distinctive, and invoke nothing of their history of being a technology leader. Radio Shack weakly to copy the identity of another tech company, and failed miserably. They should have broken-down their identity, re-built their brand based upon their historical strength of being the bearer of technology and reveled in their nerdiness, and wore their geekiness as a badge of honor.

Thanks for reading!

Pax

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