Those of us who have been involved in some form of the radio hobby (Ham, CB, SWL, Scanner etc.) for longer than 30 years, should remember those places you used to go to fill that need to get "radioactive". Places like Lafayette (which departed the scene in the early 80's), Radio Shack, and others met the needs of the budding experimenter by offering all sorts of eclectic electronic flotsam, along with test gear and other accessories. Radio Shack was a prime example. They started out as stores which supplied surplus electronic parts and equipment to electronic and radio experimenters. They used to carry a fairly extensive supply of parts, along with electronic technician's tools, test equipment, as well as complete communications receivers and transmitters, Hi-Fi audio equipment, along with antennas and accessories. It was a one-stop, soup to nuts place for all of your ham radio or other radio hobby needs. But as the years rolled by, somewhere along the business highway, they lost their way. So today we take a look at Radio Shack, and their business evolution and decide whether this 20th century company will survive the 21st century.
Radio hobbyists have never been a high percentage of the general population, but there seemed to be enough demand for this type of store, that it was able to thrive for several decades. From their humble beginnings in the early 1920's, out of a single store in the Boston area, their following grew. Their first catalog would not be published until 1939, but they were already on the road upward. There is a web site out there which is dedicated to showing all of Radio Shack's catalogs, and as you look through the catalogs as the years progressed, you can see a slow, but deliberate migration from a surplus parts and radio hobby supplier, to a retailer of consumer electronics. There were some business mergers and changes along the way as the Radio Shack brand was bought by the Tandy corporation in the early 60's and merged with (and then ordered to divest from) Allied radio in the early 70's. But even as Radio Shack slowly become more consumer oriented, they remained true to their name by selling all sorts of radios. From broadcast to public service to shortwave, AC powered home units or battery powered portables, and even hi-fi stereo gear, Radio Shack had it covered. Of course, they were also heavily invested in the Citizen's Band service, with a complete line of base, mobile, and hand held transceivers, along with antennas and accessories. They also maintained a healthy supply of electronic goods, including tubes, semi-conductors, resistors, capacitors, switches, lamps, wiring posts, and all sort of useful parts. In the very beginning, RS sold products from other manufacturers. Name brands such as Hallicrafters and Hammerlund. But as the years progressed they developed their own name brand products. With trademark names like Realistic, Archer, Patrolman, Optimus, and others, Radio Shack had most of its bases covered. If it worked with R.F. energy or audio, chances are Radio Shack offered a product to process it in some way. The best growth years for Tandy/Radio Shack were during the 1970's, and a large reason for that was the CB radio fad, which Radio Shack was in a great position to capitalize from. Back in the early days of the CB radio fad, there weren't many retail stores, where you could walk in off the street and buy CB equipment, and Radio Shack was one of the few, so they sold a lot of radios to newbie CB operators. And CB'ers also tended to enjoy other forms of radio as well, so the CB craze drove sales in police scanners, stereo, and short wave radios as well. Radio Shack's primary products at that time, were stereo receivers, speakers and accessories, and CB, scanner, and hobby radios along with parts. I can remember, as a teenager back in the 70's, that I couldn't go more than a week or two without having to buy something from Radio Shack. Whether is was CB crystals for my walkie-talkies, resistors or other parts for my experimentations, or taking advantage of their "lifetime" tube guarantee to replace the tubes in my various amplifiers when they'd start to go soft. Radio Shack was my candy store. I got to know more than a few store managers, and they used to hand me stacks of their "Battery of the month" club cards, so I was never without fresh batteries. Their parts supply would usually suffice for most repair jobs I had, and for quite a few projects. Most of the other local CB'ers got their antennas, mounts, and accessories from RS as well. Radio Shack kept most of us supplied with the things we needed to make our radio hobbies more enjoyable. Life was good. But, like with life itself, nothing good lasts forever......
I don't know when exactly Radio Shack first started down the path toward purging the "Radio" out of Radio Shack. It didn't happen overnight. Rather, it was a gradual transition and I would have to say that things began to go south in the early 80's when the CB fad started dying off. Coincidently, about that time, Radio Shack had recently come out with an affordable line of personal computers, the TRS-80. So as CB radio sales fell off, they started to hinge their bets on computers instead to bring in the big sales. So as they expanded their computer line to include a broader selection of products, along with matching accessories, they slowly started crowding out the radio hobbyists to make room. Their CB radio line dwindled down. They eventually stopped carrying base radios, and then SSB mobiles shortly after. Their parts supply dwindled down as well, as did their antennas and other accessories. But as they were cutting down on radio hobby stuff, they were also slowly expanding their line of electronic toys and "widgets". By the mid 1990's you couldn't find a SSB CB base station radio, or a decent CB antenna, but you could find a radio controlled car, or an electronic game. They remained strong in the Hi-Fi audio market, and expanded into video and telephone gear as well. It was pretty clear that their plan was to bring in sales by appealing to the broadest segments of consumer electronics. In other words, they were becoming the jack of all trades, and the master of none.
But just as it looked like the path to total radio expulsion was irreversible, Radio Shack did something cool. They started carrying affordable ham radio gear (again). The had a line of 2 meter radios and an HT, They also had matching 440 Mhz radios, a 2m/440 dual bander, and 2 different 10 meter radios as well. They sold VHF and UHF antennas, meters, accessories and a really decent DSP noise reduction unit. They also started carrying FRS and MURS radios, and expanded their scanner line to include trunk tracking units. Their CB line remained stagnant, but at least it was still alive. It seemed like the radios were not going down without a fight. But then somewhere in a smoke-filled boardroom, a decision was made. Cell phones, computers, and hi-tech consumer electronics in, Ham and other non-broadcast "niche" radios out. So they discontinued all of their ham offerings, many of the FRS and MURS radios, scaled back their CB and shortwave offerings even more, and reduced the parts collection to a small roller drawer section in the back corner in most stores. As a final indication as to where the corporate heads were at, they've recently started changing the name from "Radio Shack" to just "The Shack", finally purging any indication that the store was once primarily about all things RADIO.
I can understand the business pressures which cause these types of decisions to be made. The CB boom has been dead for a long time now, Ham radio is not all that popular, but everyone needs a cell phone and a computer right? The thing is, Radio Shack (excuse me, THE Shack) is now directly competing with the likes of Best Buy, HH Greg, and other consumer electronic superstores, who can offer a greater brand selection along with volume discounts. You can also pick up a cell phone from any one of the hundreds of cell service provider kiosks in any number of malls or stores. The Shack will not be able to offer anything unique that those other stores won't have, and as a result, they will, in all likelihood, wither and die. The radio related stuff is what made Radio Shack unique. And while radio stuff may not have been on the cutting edge of consumer driven popularity, RS did have a fairly exclusive and somewhat steady loyal following. So rather than risk being a big fish in a seemingly small pond, RS now finds itself a very small fish in a large sea full of sharks. So in a painful lesson in business irony, what they purged out, to make room for what they felt would be the hotter sellers in an attempt to keep their business alive, will probably end up being the final straw in the camel's back that kills them.
Interestingly, we have had numerous conversations over the air about the Radio Shack issue. And it would seem that someone is listening. Turns out that the local "Shack" in our area, has recently expanded their radio related offerings. They are now carrying Grundig short wave receivers, a fairly good selection of scanners, and Cobra CB's, along with a plethora of related accessories. But I have not seen the same at other stores in other areas, so this may be one store's attempt to attract some radio geek business. While not exclusively RS brands, at least they're trying to cater to the radio crowd. But alas, I feel this is probably too little too late. My prediction? I would say that "The Shack" will follow Lafayette from reality to nostalgic memory by 2012. Hopefully I'm wrong...... But I will truly miss them.