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How to Save Radio Shack
Here in late 2014, the imminent demise of Radio Shack has become a hot topic in certain circles. The place is certainly in trouble, and here is my analysis of the issue and some suggestions for rescuscitating the company.
The biggest problem the Shack has today is schizophrenia. Most stores are just mobile phone outlets with some random electronic parts and components (TVs, sound bars, etc.) in the back.
The trouble with trying to rebrand the stores as mobile phone suppliers are two-fold: the competition is fierce and competent, from Best Buy to operations like Verizon and AT&T storefronts, to the ever-present internet; and having to staff the store with generally young people who might know a thing or two about cell phones shortchanges any other service they might offer requiring deeper knowledge of electronic products.
The other problems are a lack of expert staff outside the world of mobile phones, virtually no foot traffic, and no recognisable market "niche" to speak of.
The biggest assets Radio Shack has are its footprint - store locations - and its instant name recognition, even in the absence of a clear "mission" in the public eye.
My opinion is that Radio Shack needs to return to its roots while addressing the needs of the modern marketplace.
The franchise has a strong head start - they are basically the only operation with thousands of small retail storefronts positioned to offer expertise not so much in what new gadgets to buy (computers, home theater, appliances, etc.) but in how to integrate them and keep everything working. It is important to remember that despite the seeming newness of everything that everyone is supposed to own, there are millions of pieces of consumer electronics out there, built over the last fifty or so years, that have value if they can be serviced, supported, and maintained.
My plan addresses three general areas: services offered (presently none); products offered (currently very hit or miss); and staffing requirements.
I think the stores could generate far more foot traffic and cash flow by offering unique services to the public, such as
- Speaker repair - refoaming, reconing, and refurbishing even. Their size allows for very efficient vertical supply chain integration.
- Vintage electronics repair and rejuvenation. Even if gear has to be sent to nearby service hubs, with perhaps a two-week turnaround, there is a real market here. Note that these first two services are currently only provided by a virtually underground and unadvertised network of relatively experienced hobbyists and amateurs working in their basements and garages.
- This could be considered a "product", but it's not: sell only "good" phones and other third party "gadgets". Make it a mission not to stock "everything", but only hardware that earns the Radio Shack seal of approval.
- E-waste recycling. There is money to be made, public good will to be earned, and only a patchwork network of transfer stations to compete with.
- Rapid delivery of special order items supported by intensive regional warehouses and delivery routes. Amazon Prime's two day delivery (to the local store for pick up) should be matched.
The product line - what is generally or always available in stock or brought from a nearby store within hours - must be more comprehensive and useful. I address the former with additions and the latter with deletions.
There are gaping holes in the modeern marketplace being served only by various on-line marketers, who, due to shipping costs and certain complexities, can only offer crude products which are poorly supported.
One of these is supplying speaker repair products to hobbyists. The list is fairly simple when it comes to fixing old consumer hi-fi units. These would all be supported by very high quality on-line video tutorials. The pricing must be competitive with the internet, allowing a premium for immediate over-the-counter availability with no shipping costs.
Speaker repair supplies:
- A moderately comprehensive line of foam and butyl surrounds. About twenty or so would cover almost all needs. There is some real money to be made here, because the raw material costs so little.
- A range of about twenty dust caps, in paper, felt, and polypropylene.
- The three or four most commonly used adhesives - clear PVA, black PVA, contact cement, and something like Loctite Black Max.
- Shim material in several thicknesses from 0.005" to 0.030", in small quantities of a foot or so.
- Tinsel material in about three gauges.
- Grill cloth by the yard. Grill foam with an on-site cutting machine.
- Replacement parts:
- Soft dome tweeters with interchangeable - and DIY customisable - faceplates.
- Certain drivers for which the market is large but spread thinly - original Advent woofers and tweeters, for instance, done exactly right.
- Crossover parts - film capacitors from 1 to 20 uF, a half dozen choke coils, and a decent meter for testing these devices; power resistors. Instructions and hands-on support for making desired values out of stock ones.
- Terminal accessories, building on ideas like my ACC 004 product line.
A complete line of belts typically needed to repair tape decks. Pinch rollers and various idler "tires" should be available, even if by special order. Parts like this can be sold at a premium since they are so inexpensive.
The line of switches, jacks, lights, cables and adapters, etc. needs to be modernised and improved.
The electronic tools selection also needs a makeover, with generally two lines offered - a series of low cost but basically functional ones for the often one-use amateur, and real professional grade ones for hobbyists. These lines need to be clearly differentiated.
Tubes. Yes, vacuum tubes. These would most likely be special order. Radio Shack branded, and make that brand mean something. Offer free (or nominal charge) testing.
The same for transistors.
Resistors, capacitors, chokes, semiconductors, integrated circuits, etc. Let's face it, you should be able to build a radio with parts in stock at any Radio Shack.
Amplifier, preamplifier, and tuner kits. With tubes and transformers. Re-issue the best of the best of the old Heathkit, Dynaco, etc. products. Except for larger stores these would probably be special order only.
The "seal of approval" gadgets mentioned under "services", of course.
Automobile OBD-II code readers, with add-on OEM code modules, with extensive high-quality on-line support videos, specialised by location and year/make/model, if possible.
Unique devices, like an HDMI control center designed to augment a previous generation AV receiver. To generalise on this, "integration" devices in general are a good idea. These are the things people need to get their new stuff to work with their old stuff, like switchboxes, adapters, converters, etc. Phono preamps are a good example. Radio Shack has always sold an inexpensive one, which is a good idea. They should also carry a very good one at five times the price.
Robotics supplies, aimed at the hobbyist.
Fundamental automation supplies, aimed at the hobbyist.
A line of basic inexpensive hobbyist level computer-control devices - small generic CPUs and peripherals - nanocomputers, if you will - to support the above two fields at the very least.
Things to be removed are trickier. Mobile phone accessories are obvious, of course. But does the store really need blank PC boards, etch-resist ink, and etchant, when perfboards and breadboards will do?
Anything that is readily available in two days from the internet, like six different lengths of HDMI cable, either needs to be dropped or become price competitive (at most a 20% premium).
It is far too frequent in my experience to walk into a local Radio Shack these days and encounter one or two employees, neither of whom worked there the last time I entered the store, who are young and lack knowledge of the product line. I have nothing against youth - there should be no better job for the eager young electronics/gadgetry enthusiast than working at their local Radio Shack. These employees should have full time opportunities and be paid well enough to ensure retention and devotion. There also should be no better job for the older, experienced, perhaps even retired, hobbyist or enthusiast whose garage-based business we just shut down. Experience should pay reasonably well - in the two to three or even four times the minimum wage range, with full time opportunities.
Eagerness and knowledge - and eagerness to gain knowledge and experience - are the key factors. These qualities need to be reflected up the management and supply chain all the way to the top. The CEO of Radio Shack should be a household name much as companies like Apple have achieved, and be reknowned as a gadget and DIY enthusiast.
The Elevator Speech
In conclusion, Radio Shack has lost its way in the modern marketplace by trying to be things it shouldn't be (a mobile phone store) and forgetting to maintain "ownership" of its key remit: being the local go-to place for all components and services related to consumer electronics hobbies and repairs.
The reality is that one Super Bowl commercial could present this re-branding to the public virtually overnight.
- The company should sponsor high profile events like robotics competitions and science fairs.
- Individual stores should provide a focal point for FM DXers, ham radio clubs, model rocketeers, and the like, and engage in "local flavor" by displaying their projects, newsletters, web sites, etc., and even hosting their meetings.
- The trend towards proud self-identification as nerds and science lovers has made what was once an awkward market position a real potential asset.
- Radio Shack should not strive to be a store everyone wants to frequent. Just the people who build and fix gadgets, and people who want their gadgets fixed.
- It needs a lame, embarrassing slogan to that effect. Something that would look good on the side of a van, like "Your stuff, fixed now!" or "Your gadgets - build them or fix them!".
- On any given visit, a Radio Shack should be populated by at least two busy staffers out front, one in the back fixing things, at least three customers buying products, at least three "regulars" trying to help the leftover customer, and a teenager or two cataloging the inventory and dreaming of their next project.
- A branded truck or van should visit at least twice a day, running special orders and repairs back and forth to central depots.
- Within reason - that is, not promised but possible - local delivery of items not in the nearest store should be possible.
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