SO LONG, THE ’SHACK
How a once mighty American tech retail brand ultimately failed in a world that just doesn’t want to tinker any more…
Shopping in the United States is a somewhat strange affair. Unless you go to the mall, stores just sit along the side of the highway, interspersed with chain restaurants and gas stations. You drive, you get what you need and then on to the next intersection, where there are more shops.
Until very recently, a fixture amongst these shops was RadioShack. It had stores everywhere, although I must admit I’d never been tempted in. So when the sad news of 94-year-old tech retailer’s impending demise came through, I figured I should have a gawp.
What I saw was an elegiac throwback to tech retail past. And it mainly made me think, “No wonder it’s going out of business.”
Aside from an array of mobile devices, tellies and headphones, the Shack was a dad- tech paradise. Everywhere were Bluetooth headsets, universal remotes and stuff nobody any longer thinks about buying from anywhere but Amazon – batteries, cables, extension leads and the like.
There was also a weirdly large number of radio-controlled cars and an array of replacement components for fixing gadgets.
Nonetheless, I felt a little sad that this iconic, all-American company was going down in a hail of snidey media piss-taking. After all, it was RadioShack that brought “tech” into many homes for the first time.
Established in 1921 as a radio parts retailer in Fort Worth, Texas, the Shack really had it going on at one point. It was the biggest seller of CB radios during the craze in the ‘70s and also brought the first fully-assembled personal computer, the TRS-80, to market, outselling the new Apple I threefold, initially.
The store’s wealth of components and spare parts also made it a haven for doit-yourself gadgeteers in an era when the electronics revolution was taking hold. It had an innovative spirit that let ideas flourish.
It had an Australian offshoot too: Tandy. Older readers may remember the stores’ hand-written receipts and insistence on taking your address every time you bought anything.
RadioShack also helped to pioneer cell phones, selling one for the thenquite-reasonable early-adopter’s price of US$2,495. “Go Where You Wanna Go, Call When You Wanna Call” its cheery commercial jingle intoned, as sexy models walked along the beach, with the microwave-sized battery pack tossed nonchalantly over one shoulder.
However, it was the mobile that ultimately did it in. As devices converged into the smartphone, people just needed less stuff. Furthermore, modern mobile devices have all the repairability of a puréed banana. The Shack’s wealth of spares and soldering irons were of no use on this new tech breed.
And so Tandy shut down in Australia, with many of its stores being converted to Dick Smith outlets. Now RadioShack itself is going the way of the dodo.
It’s a damn shame, but the fact is that even if smartphones and LCD screens could be fixed as easily as a transistor radio, the desire just isn’t there to do it anymore. There’s been a generational shift, and people now think nothing of replacing broken hardware rather than tinkering with it.
In that sense RadioShack is a casualty of tech’s colonisation of the mainstream. The irony is that this venerable institution did more than most to set the stage for that.