Buried in the title of the Fast Company Design article is the phrase that says it all: RadioShack Tries To Find Its Way.
Radio Shack is the epitome of a turnaround story. The company, with roots in the electronics geek culture stretching back to its founding in 1921. The company’s Wikipedia page tells the story of how the founders Theodore and Milton Deutschmann chose the name “Radio Shack,” “which was the term for a small, wooden structure that housed a ship’s radio equipment. The Deutschmanns thought the name was appropriate for a store that would supply the needs of radio officers aboard ships, as well as “ham” radio operators. The term was already in use — and is to this day — by “hams” when referring to the location of their stations.”
The reason it’s relevant to embrace the company’s original direction is because the company had strayed away from it so completely. The marketer in me sees a company that was once completely relevant to a dedicated Popular Mechanics-reading audience in the days when there was no other way to reach that audience, save the odd mail-order parts specialist.
But Radio Shack’s attractiveness to so many different owners was not based on a burning need to appeal to the electronics hobby enthusiast. It was the company’s retail footprint: many small locations in high-traffic malls. These were inexpensive to run, in the middle of everything, and already in place. Looking at the Radio Shack story from the perspective of a retail start-up / turnaround specialist, all the real estate can be a tremendous head-start for a concept that needs to take hold. On wouldn’t try to convert Radio Shack into a cupcake bakery, but something aligned with a mall-based electronics concept could be very powerful.
Sometimes a great idea happens before its time, but after a while time catches up. The notion of “Maker” culture has taken a firm hold among the brighter, more inquisitive set. The idea of hacking a device to make it do different things or building from scratch a computer-to-physical interface is no longer restricted to the very upper echelons of geekdom.
Thus the return of Radio Shack to relevance.
Radio Shack’s web site makes them appear as any other category-leading retailer whose web presence is secondary to their bricks and mortar. This is probably a mistake, but behind their navigation we can see the glimmer of the old “Shack” that will appeal to today’s geek. They are again embracing their roots as supplier of things that delight the tinkerer but are too esoteric for the Apple Store shopper.
It is now up to management to, as they say, not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The trends in digital tinkering and hacking and maker culture all pave the way for Radio Shack to be the go-to place for what has become a more mainstream hobby: electronics. All they have to do is stay focused on how to scratch that itch, and to combine the kind of excellent service that a neighborhood store delivers with the buying power of a category leader, and Radio Shack will remain not only ubiquitous, but relevant.