I remember the first time I got something from Radio Shack, although it was called Tandy in the Uk, a radio-controlled sports car. I thought it was fantastic, it had a transmitter radius of about 20′, and a battery life of about three minutes of constant use. As it was designed to look like a sports car, it was low to the ground and would bottom out on uneven surfaces. Also it did not work well on carpet, the rubber tires constantly picked up dog hair, which became entangled around the axles, draining the battery even faster. In our house, a 1970’s era build, wood floors were not in fashion at the time it was built, the only room without carpet was the kitchen, which was of course tiny, and it would get trodden on, or kicked, and so I would have to take it outside to the patio to play, where at least it could not stray outside of the 20′ transmission radius, but it could be stopped by the uneven levels between the paving slabs, so I would quickly get frustrated and take it back up to my room. Perhaps that is why it lasted so long, I could only use it in short bursts in the kitchen, so despite the danger from kicking, it never wore out and I didn’t become too frustrated with the battery life. I remember later in life, when adult friends purchased remote control cars, ostensibly for their kids, but they would never let the kid have the controller until the battery was almost exhausted, would I realize how short the battery life was in remote vehicles, and this was years later when battery technology had come a long way.
The other thing I remember from Tandy/Radio Shack was an electronics kit with which you could make your own radio, and a couple of other things. My father purchased it for me for Christmas one year, mainly because he actually wanted it for himself, but since it was listed as a child’s toy, couldn’t bring himself to ask for it, or get it for himself, so he purchased it for me, then spent Christmas Day playing with it on his own after I lost interest in about 30 seconds. This is an interesting tactic which I have myself deployed on a number of occasions.
So fast-forward a few decades, and here I am in rural Maine, and Radio Shack has just entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy, not good. The thing is Radio Shack stores are everywhere, I drove a bus load of kids up to Bucksport yesterday for league Volleyball and Basketball games, they have a Radio Shack, and their town is tiny. Locally I have two stores, both less than 8 miles away.
The staff at these stores are just fantastic, they really set the level of knowledge to judge the Best Buy / Circuit City / Wal-Mart sales representatives by. I have become such a regular at one store, the manager knows me by name, and most of my kids too. I have trusted his advice, with good reason, in either delaying a purchase until a better deal comes out, or in matching purchases to get compatible devices. some years ago I was particularly well assisted in my local store, so I took the opportunity to go online when I got home to fill out the ‘Satisfaction Survey’ and got very specific about how well I was served. Because I had been very specific about it, the manager (it was he who served me) was quickly able to figure out who it was who had filled out the survey, and the next time I came in, which was some months later, he thanked me. So now, whenever I can articulate a specific was someone helps me in a store, I go online and fill out their survey. For poor service I am generally just grouch to myself, unless someone has gone out fo their way to tick me off. Which reminds me, I need to go online and fill out a survey for the national chain restaurant we visited late last night with a bus load of tired but victorious teens, they were incredibly efficient and welcoming.
The range of electronics they have in the stores, just incredible. A friend recently ‘cut-the-cord’ from Cable TV, and was looking for a digital TV signal converter for their old analogue TV, which I had gathering dust in the attic. At the same time I gave them that I asked if they had a digital antenna, which they did not, so I told them to google how to make one, and since I happened to be near a Radio Shack, I popped in and grabbed a balun (aka a matching transformer), which is the only part of a home-made aerial that you need to buy, it’s the bit that takes the signal from the two lengths of chopped up clothes hangers and converts it to a COAX plug so you can connect your TV.
So recently I was looking for a very specific item, a step-down AC transformer for a science project for one of the boy’s. It would take the 120 volt home voltage and step-it down to about 22 volts, a much safer voltage to work with, while keeping the output AC, rather than converting it to DC like your typical wall-wart converter for phones, laptops ect. So I went to my favourite store first, armed with a part number and secure in the knowledge the computer (all-seeing, all-knowing) stated they had six fo them in stock. So I arrive, exchange mutually satisfactory derogatory greetings with the manager in an acceptable masculine manner, which shocked the heck out of the young kid who was working the counter with him. But there are no transformers on the shelf, or in the racks of trays. So we check the computer, apparently they were sent to the other local store last week, after coming off sale.
But that’s ok, the other store is actually on my way home, so we stop in there, they think they have the transformer, but it would be in a bag, with lots of other bags, which were sent down from the other store last week after the sale. My disappointment must have shown, she immediately suggested we search the bags for it. So she grabbed the huge bag, full of lots of other bags, and we started opening them. Luckily who ever had packed them away knew what they were doing, they had not mixed anything up, so you could look in the top, and be certain that what you saw on top was all that was contained in the bag. i was amazed at some of the items they carry, resistors and diodes I haven’t seen since my dad tried to get me to help him make the radio that Christmas Day long ago. Well to cut a long story short, we did not find the transformer in the bags of bags, it was determined to still be in transit somewhere out there. So in the end we ordered it online, from Radio Shack, getting a couple of other things at the same time to get the free shipping.
And therein lies the crux of the matter, Radio Shack had such an extensive catalogue of items, the stores had to only display a small part of it. The hard choice had to be a retailer of consumer electronics, or specialized DIY electronics, there was not the room for both, nor was there the high demand for either, with plenty of other retailers in the market.
So what lies ahead for the store? I hope my favourite and highly efficient local Radio Shack employees will find employment in the new Sprint stores, and that the stores will continue to sell much of the same items. Tandy / Radio Shack managed to re-invent itself before, when they went from selling their own-brand electronics, to selling other brands.
As I mentioned earlier, Radio Shack was perfect for the last-minute specialist item, and whose to say Sprint will keep this side of the store going? I know I am not alone in lamenting this loss, as this article on Jalopnic illustrates.