Dear RadioShack

RadioShackGreetings, my fellow nerdy friends. I read with concern last week in the business press that you are closing as many as 1100 stores, following your well-received Super Bowl commercial earlier this year. You are not alone. Sears is closing stores. Staples is closing stores. Quiznos is closing stores. There seems to be plenty of commercial real estate coming on the market in all shapes and footprints. I wanted to write to you because I used to love the RadioShack brand, and I would hate to see it join the other tombstones in the Dead Brand Graveyard. You see, I was a bit of a geek as a kid, still sort of am, mowed a lot of lawns and bought my first CB Radio at RadioShack way back when, then used to love to hang out with the other geeks in the store.

So I wonder if the big-salary strategy teams sitting around the table in your headquarters this modern moment have asked themselves the following ten very personal questions:

1) When was the last time they shopped unprompted as a customer in a RadioShack?

2) What did they love about walking into the store?

3) What did they love about the shelf displays in the store?

4) What did they love about the merchandise on sale in the store?

5) What did they love about the staff in the store?

6) What was in the store that was unique, perfectly priced, or presented so well they couldn’t say no to it?

7) How much did they spend of their own money in the store?

8) Did they tell a friend about the experience and urge that friend to also visit the store?

9) When they got home, did they think, oh wow, I should have bought something else while I was there?

10) Are they actually excited about visiting that store again as soon as they can?

The reason I ask is, I never worked at a RadioShack, but I used to be able to answer every single one of these questions in the affirmative. I was a brand evangelist for RadioShack. I actually loved your brand.

At the moment I have no clue what it stands for, except every once in a while I need an obscure electronics plug or unusually shaped battery, and I drop by because you’re paying top dollar for a great location right between my bank and a sushi place I enjoy. If it pops in my head, sometimes I drop off a bucket of old batteries for you to recycle, and if you have the gizmo I need, I gladly fork over about $3 to $8. The guys at checkout always ask for my zip code for some reason, even though I know you know it, because you used to mail me a catalogue several times a year with cool stuff to come see and at least one great coupon offer, but no one there seems to know me after 40-plus years of stopping by. I’m glad you still have the little wired metal gizmos when I need them, and I wish I could spend more money while I was in the store, but there’s really nothing I need or can’t get online cheaper, and the guy behind the counter doesn’t seem to want to swap stories about weird-shaped neon mini bulbs anymore. I miss that guy, he was a geek like me.

You were once the Tandy Corporation, remember? You sold leather goods. Then you reinvented and became RadioShack, and we geeks thought it was a cool place to gather, kind of like Egghead, before they became rent-free NewEgg. You had the TRS-80 and knew how to load software on it! Are some of those geeks at your conference table? Do they love your brand the way we did–not like, but actually love? If they don’t, are they able to articulate what happened to the magic?  Because if they can’t, and they don’t want to go to RadioShack like a real customer, then why should I? I mean, sure, anyone can hire an agency to do a killer commercial, and you can love a commercial, but that’s not the same as loving a brand. It’s also not the same as a reason to go into your store.

I do believe you have to eat your own dogfood if you want someone else to give it a taste. That’s just me. Call me a simpleton without an MBA, but when I love a brand, and I have reason to recommit my loyalty to that brand time and again, price is only one part of my decision funnel. I want a brand that comes with a promise. What’s yours?

I won’t be writing this letter to Sears or Staples or Quiznos, although I do occasionally frequent those stores, but I did want to share my thoughts with you, because there was a time not long ago when you meant something to me. Like Borders. Like Tower Records. Like Blockbuster. Those old friends are no longer to be found. I wonder if the people sitting around the table in their final year loved their brands as much as their customers once did, or if they just ran spreadsheets and focus tests.

There’s a lot going on in a store; it’s a great laboratory for learning. When there’s nothing going on there at all, you can learn even more.

It all begins with a promise.

Signing off now, that’s a big 10-4.

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8 thoughts on “Dear RadioShack

  1. I’m with you Ken. Radio Shack has been a great brand that has satisfied my needs for ever and a day.

    Please allow me to indulge you with some personal accounts of my happy experiences with Radio Shack. A few years back–or decades back but whose counting, I worked at Radio Shack. It wasn’t the electronics store which Tandy used to refer to as an “01” store. I worked for about nine months at a Radio Shack Computer Center in Bay Ridge Brooklyn selling TRS 80s, a.k.a “trash” 80s. These stores did not survive the 1980s, not able to compete with VARs, CompUSA, Fryes, etc.

    The training program for us Computer Sales Representatives “CSRs” was actually pretty good. The art of cold calling was taught above all else. We were paid a minimum wage draw against commission. I actually made some decent dough moving TRS 80s, and the pc clones running Windows 1.0 –> 2.0: Tandy 1000s, 1200s and 2000s. But I really struck gold selling Tandy 6000 multiuser systems that supported up to six terminals (including the base computer) and ran the Xenix OS (a derivative of Unix). My clients tended to be local small businesses looking for book keeping, scheduling and billing solutions which is why I would often bundle my systems with accounting and office management software. I did so well that the my last quarter with the company–before departing for a salaried marketing job with Price Waterhouse–I earned the top sales award for the district which included Brooklyn, Manhattan, Staten Island and parts of central Jersey.

    The people I worked with and for were friendly, honest, hard working folk. The friendliest, smartest and most philosophical of them all was our resident tech, Yaakov Sternbach, a Hasidic Jew (very orthodox) who sported a long beard, black hat white dress shirt, black vest, black pants and black shoes. He liked his work and the people he worked with and always wore a smile. In his spare time, besides feeding his addiction to Kings Quest, he taught me how to program in BASIC and dbase.

    One Friday afternoon Yaakov borrowed Frank our managers Olds Cutlass to make a tech call. When Yaakov returned from the call at the end of the day he beat a hasty retreat for the subway to get home before sundown and the start of the Jewish Sabbath. About an hour later, Frank emerged from his office frantically looking for his car keys. Realizing that our star tech had accidentally taken them home, Frank called Mr. Sternbach’s home (this was about eight years before cell phones). One small problem, Shabbat had commenced and under strict orthodox law Yaakov was forbidden from answering the phone for the next 24 hours. Poor Yaakov! Fortunately, Frank’s wife was a good sport and delivered a spare set of keys to the Computer Center. Nice memories.

    The first computer I ever bought was a Tandy 2000 with–count it–a 10 MB hard drive. It sported an 8088 microchip and math co-processor and was lightening fast for those times. The Tandy 2000 was a favorite among architects and engineers for the speed in which it ran CAD programs. I used it to–for the very first time– to word process on Multimate a research paper in graduate school. What a game changer versus using my Smith Corona for the same task. The Tandy DWP 220 Daisy Wheel printer was a bit loud however. FilemakerPro (database), and Lotus 123, also resided on my magical machine along with Kings Quest (no numeral after it, just Kings Quest) and a few other games.

    For decades beyond working for Tandy, I’ve continued to shop at Radio Shack and continue to enjoy the experience. It’s where I could go for any electronic doo-dad I might need and don’t have the patience to wait for online delivery. Even if I had the patience, I can’t always describe what I’m looking for so need to bring the old one or mating part in to Radio Shack for a discerning geek to identify the mystery part I require. Like yours, my Radio Shack is conveniently located. It’s right next to the Safeway where I do grocery shopping often. My Radio Shack TSRs, “Technical Sales Representatives” are still fairly geeky and certainly friendly. They know where things are in the store, provide you with useful advice and on occasion will shoot the breeze with you if the store is not too busy.

    To paraphrase Paul Simon, mama don’t take my Radio Shack, mama don’t take my Radio Shack, mama don’t take my Radio Shack a-waaaay.

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  2. LOVE it Ken!! SPOT ON!

    Lets grab lunch one of these days; love to update you on StepsAway. It was an ‘idea’ when we last had lunch; since then we have closed Series A, recruited 8 to join the team, filed for 11 patents, and announced in the last few weeks that we are ‘going live’ in 10 Taubman malls around the country this Spring.

    Check it out : http://www.stepsaway.com & let me know how your calendar looks for early April.

    Best,

    Allan

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  3. I remember getting my Electronics Lab at Radio Shack and being fascinated by the 101 things I could build. (Ooh, a lie detector! An alarm!) The last few times I’ve gone into the store and walked through the tables of crap which seem randomly thrown around store, I’ve found my way back to the cable department where the staff seem baffled by a request for the simplest cable. Meanwhile, my last trip to MicroCenter was really interesting. It was filled with customers. The staff were busy taking apart computers, recommending ways to patch graphics cards or wire up a home security system. Why would any self-respecting geek work at Radio Shack when you could work at the Apple Store or MicroCenter or some other place where you are surrounded by other likeminded staff and customers?

    The analogy to Tower is accurate. I remember when I used to walk in Tower Records and could have an interesting discussion with the salesperson and get good music recommendations. Those people really loved music. Same with Blockbuster. I couldn’t imagine having a discussion about movies with someone who worked at Blockbuster.

    Eat your own dog food indeed.

    (By the way, the founders of Qwire use Qwire, so we’re covered!)

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  4. Pingback: Dear RadioShack - The Good Men Project

  5. As a former RadioShack employee from the late 90s I can say that while I was there was when they appeared to make a gradual shift away from employee education. I remember studying books on various product types and having to take a test in each subject area to become certified in things like audio/video, CBs and Scanners and various others. Toward the end of my 3 years there they seemed to stop caring about that stuff and started hiring young (inexperienced) sales people. They also stopped paying hourly wages plus commission and went straight hourly or commission based. In short, when I was there, you could walk into a RadioShack and usually talk to an “expert”. Now you get counter jockeys that unfortunately have no experience or opinion on any of the products they sell. Toward the end of my tenure, I was in charge of merchandising in my district, and you bet all the stores had orderly displays with working alarm systems and car stereos as well as fully functioning surround sound systems. Now it’s just a few things on display and mostly in boxes where you cant try them out and be “Wowed” by the sound. Those are the things I miss about the “old” RadioShack. I’d gladly frequent their stores as a customer if it were like that again.

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