Who doesn’t love Radio Shack? The company is as much a part of American retailing lore as Sears and Roebuck and Macy’s. The TRS-80 the company made famous was instrumental in the popularization of the personal computer, and for decades the store was the go-to location for cables, components, and a dazzling variety of gadgets and hardware you just couldn’t get anywhere else. Sure, there were the occasional product flops (does anyone remember the CueCat? No? There’s a very good reason for that). Somewhere along the way though, the world started changing, and Radio Shack didn’t change with it, or at least not fast enough to matter.
Back in the late 70s and 80s, RadioShack was poised to be THE name in electronics retail. The only store you would ever need. The problem was, their often over-paid managers had lots of big ideas and they tried them all. Simultaneously and haphazardly.
They tried to be the super-electronics store, but with a small footprint. They tried to be the mammoth PC manufacturer and for a while the TRS-80 even outsold Apple, but they didn’t keep up with the times. The venerable TRS-80 became known as the “Trash 80” within a few years, and its PCs were being outperformed by Dells, IBMs and Apples. They tried to be the cellphone giant, only to sell the business at exactly the wrong time. They tried to be Best Buy and Circuit City combined, but of course, with a small footprint and limited inventory, they wound up being neither.
At every turn their strengths became weaknesses. The vision of their leadership, while bold and exciting, was not executed with any kind of focus, and that’s the real shame. Businesses tend to be at their best when they focus on one thing and apply all their available resources to doing that one thing really well. As RadioShack dabbled in dozens of different things, never really giving any one of them its undivided attention, more focused businesses sprang up around them and began systematically taking market share from them.
It’s clear that you don’t kill a billion-dollar company overnight, but the retailer’s descent accelerated with the commercialization of the internet and the rise of Amazon. Having been relegated to being a niche presence in retail, focusing on cables and the other essential hardware that make computers run, Radio Shack suddenly found even this ground shifting beneath their feet. Why run down to your local Radio Shack and pay 30-40% more for the cable you need when you can just have it delivered to your door? That’s how Radio Shack became a business without a point or purpose.
It was a good store. It could have been a great store. It could have been one of the defining companies of the computer age, and it’s a real pity that it wasn’t. Radio Shack, you will be missed, and to business owners everywhere, take care not to make the same mistakes they made, or you may well be joining them.