Once, We Were Makers

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

The Lost Tribes of RadioShack must search for a new spiritual home, as their Mecca has transformed itself from a storehouse of transistors and capacitors for DIY hobbyists to a slick store that sells mobility — cell phones:

The problem, in short, was that Americans didn’t think RadioShack was cool. To the extent that most people thought about RadioShack at all, it was as a convenient place to grab some printer ink or a hearing-aid battery.

Between 2004 and 2009, the company’s profits fell by 39 percent. It had gotten to the point where, early last year, executives were putting a little too much hope on the nationwide switch-over to digital TV, imagining that folks coming in to buy conversion boxes could be seduced into other, more expensive purchases, too. But the little old ladies with coupons for government-subsidized antennas were resistant to impulse buys.

Still, where giant specialty retailers like the Good Guys and Circuit City rode the electronics boom and bust right into bankruptcy, RadioShack has survived, although that survival was less a matter of salesmanship than cost-cutting. Around the time new CEO Julian Day took over in 2006, the company liquidated poorly selling inventory, closed 481 stores, and squeezed $100 million out of administrative expenses; even the houseplants in RadioShack stores were sold — to employees for $5 each — to save on the cost of watering them.

One of Day’s other priorities has been to meticulously homogenize RadioShack stores, á la McDonald’s and Starbucks. Whereas the company once gave store managers an astounding amount of autonomy, a recently distributed internal handbook provides precise instructions for everything from organizing merchandise on the show floor to which cleaning fluid they must use to shine their metallic lower shelves. (Armor All Original formula, if you’re wondering.) Another page presents, with a series of painstakingly annotated photographs, the head-to-toe elements of the only two acceptable styles of dress for salespeople: Traditional Business (tie, optional vest or blazer, light-colored shirt, dress shoes) and RadioShack Casual (black, white, or red shirt, no tie, dress loafers).

Day’s efforts have made the company look better on paper, but it was only when it began to sell itself as a place to comparison-shop for wireless phones and calling plans that RadioShack began to seem viable again.

It may seem strange that, finding themselves in a financial morass, executives decided their best option was to compete head-to-head with both the wireless carriers’ own stores and the cell phone departments of giants like Walmart and Best Buy. But they may have had little choice: The average RadioShack store is only 2,500 square feet and can’t possibly stock a competitive selection of large appliances like flatscreen TVs. (Managers have had to stash merchandise in the rafters or rent off-site storage units in the run-up to Christmas.) Cell phones, on the other hand, like the parts and pieces the company once thrived on, are small products with exceptionally high profit margins. There’s the handset and the accessories, but most important, there’s the commission that wireless carriers pay to cell phone retailers for every new contract on a phone. A phone is like a tiny slot machine that pays off month after month.

The logic is hard to resist, and in fact, RadioShack’s focus on wireless has been building gradually for at least the past decade — always at the direct expense of hobbyists, says Tim Oldham, a former corporate buyer at the company. “They intentionally decided to downsize the product offering for hobbyists, all the capacitors and resistors and connectors,” in order to cram in more phones, Oldham says. “It’s not coincidental. The money was just too big.”

Some history:

In a single generation, the American who built, repaired, and tinkered with technology has evolved into an entirely new species: the American who prefers to slip that technology out of his pocket and show off its killer apps. Once, we were makers. Now most of us are users.

“We are not looking for the guy who wants to spend his entire paycheck on a sound system,” RadioShack’s chair, Charles Tandy, bragged to analysts in the mid-1970s. “We are in the do-it-yourself business.”

Craftiness was in Tandy’s bloodline. He cut his teeth helming the family business, the Tandy Leather Company, which sold leather and leatherworking tools to veterans’ hospitals and Boy Scouts. The cigar-chomping Texan was the kind of eccentric, larger-than-life executive that any modern PR handler would keep tightly muzzled. He celebrated his 60th birthday by riding a rented elephant around the grounds of his mansion, and he kept a plastic breast on his desk that made a gong sound when he pressed the nipple. It was how he called for more coffee.

Tandy recognized that leatherworking was probably not a growth industry, and in 1963 he strong-armed his board of directors into buying and pouring money into RadioShack, then a 42-year-old company with nine stores. RadioShack quickly ballooned into a chain of more than 6,000 locations, becoming a kind of cluttered general store for the pioneers of the electronic age. That growth was spurred on in the mid-’70s, when the company smartly got in front of one particular technological fad: the CB radio craze. At the peak of the boom, RadioShack was opening three new stores a day. (“Americans sure like to jabber,” a befuddled executive told the press.)

This is not to say Charles Tandy himself was an early adopter or technogical visionary. According to the book Tandy’s Money Machine, by Irvin Farman, when a RadioShack vice president rushed down to Tandy’s departing Lincoln Continental to tell him they had created a promising prototype of a computer, Tandy shot back, “A computer? Who needs a computer?” Nevertheless, by 1977, the company was preparing to unveil the TRS-80, the world’s first mass-produced, fully assembled PC.

“I remember the TRS-80 very well,” says Forrest Mims. At the time, Mims had already begun his career writing how-to books like Getting Started in Electronics and Engineer’s Notebook, definitive editions in the world of hobby electronics that have sold more than 2 million copies. The books were written exclusively for RadioShack and were offered in stores for a few dollars each. They were essentially giveaways; the real money came from all the diodes, transistors, and tools that hobbyists needed to build the circuits he diagrammed. It was a shrewd tactic. Those little parts and pieces had huge markups — some as high as 500 percent — and RadioShack could fit lots of them in its relatively small stores.

Mims was invited to take a look at the TRS-80, before it went on sale, at a RadioShack R&D unit located in a warehouse in downtown Fort Worth. The two young engineers who had developed the machine led him around. “They escorted me into this room,” Mims recalls. “It was all hush-hush.” Inside, arrayed on long tables, were two dozen TRS-80s, with cassette decks for data storage and 12-inch RCA monitors. They were being tested, and each had an image on its screen of a waving American flag. “It was really a shock,” Mims says. He had never seen 24 computers in a room before; in those days, if you wanted a personal computer, you pretty much had to build it yourself.

One of the engineers invited Mims to sit down and try out the TRS-80 — just fool around on it a little. He declined. “I didn’t have a clue how to use the thing,” he says. Mims was an expert engineer, but he didn’t know anything about the machine’s programming language, Basic.

A new era was beginning. Computers, and all consumer electronic goods, were on their way to becoming what they are today: slick low-cost commodities heaped in the aisles of big-box stores. When they break, it’s cheaper to throw them out than open them up and repair them, and most can’t be sold for the kind of profit margins required by small stores like RadioShack. In retrospect, the launch of the TRS-80 was probably the most promising moment in RadioShack’s history — and the start of its decline.

“Let’s put it this way,” Mims says. “Hobby electronics peaked with the advent of the ready-made PC. There was no longer a need for anyone to build digital displays and TTL processors in their garage or spend time messing with circuitry. Now you could spend time at a keyboard, working on an actual computer.” It was a fulfillment of a dream. But it also served as a portent that the hands-on way of life RadioShack embodied would become irrelevant.

Mims couldn’t use the TRS-80 that day because he knew much more about how that piece of technology was wired on the inside than how to do anything with it. In other words, he was the exact opposite of today’s typical consumer. And that cultural shift is what RadioShack has been struggling with ever since.

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