Out in the shack

Out in the shack

Article from Issue 167/2014

RadioShack has dug itself into serious financial straits through the years by failing to stay with the times. When I was a kid, “Radio Shack” was a cool little store with lots of strange gadgets for electronics hobbyists and do-it-yourself home repair types. Any business that intentionally calls itself a “shack” is clearly trying to evoke an image, and the Radio Shack image was a preserve for the home inventor, laboring in a backyard shop, contentedly stringing wires and soldering connections amid piles of loose parts and circuit diagrams.

Dear Linux Pro Reader,

RadioShack has dug itself into serious financial straits through the years by failing to stay with the times. When I was a kid, "Radio Shack" was a cool little store with lots of strange gadgets for electronics hobbyists and do-it-yourself home repair types. Any business that intentionally calls itself a "shack" is clearly trying to evoke an image, and the Radio Shack image was a preserve for the home inventor, laboring in a backyard shop, contentedly stringing wires and soldering connections amid piles of loose parts and circuit diagrams.

The world has changed a lot since then. Frankly, there aren't as many things to fix. TVs and stereos no longer have serviceable parts. Few of us climb onto a roof to run cable to a TV antenna. Even network cable isn't as ubiquitous as it was a few years ago with so many homes going wireless. RadioShack has drifted into selling a lot of consumer electronic products, including TV and even mobile phones, to go along with the quirky gadgets and the usual supply of cables, connectors, and switches, but the whole thing has lost its direction.

RadioShack even seems to admit they have lost their direction. This year's Super Bowl viewers saw a very odd RadioShack commercial that featured pop culture icons from the 1980s coming to "take their store back," presumably to let it be reborn.

Did RadioShack succeed in giving itself a new beginning? Not really. As of a few days ago, the stock price had lost three-quarters of its value, falling to 57 cents. The company almost closed many of its stores earlier this year – until creditors blocked the plan – and they are reportedly in danger of getting delisted by the New York Stock Exchange.

Much to the frustration of the company's managers, changing the aisle ambiance and bringing in new products like Beats headphones has not caused a turnabout in the corporate fortune, nor could we expect that it would. Do we really need yet another Best Buy clone, with headphones and tablets displayed in a hip, millennial format designed to resemble an iPhone playlist?

Actually, that schtick wasn't working for Best Buy either – until recently. How did they turn around their sinking ship? By making a deal with Microsoft to open Windows stores inside Best Buy locations. People bring their Windows computers into Best Buy to get fixed, and they shop around for other stuff while they are there. Best Buy is back in the game, and their deal with Microsoft means they don't just unload their hardware on you anymore – they offer the image of expertise and continuing support for the lifetime of the product.

Apple has had its own retail store for years, and now Windows has a store through the deal with Best Buy. What about Linux? Will there ever be a retail establishment, coordinated and organized at the national level, where a customer can walk right in and get some on-site expertise with Linux, get a Linux system fixed, or buy hardware that is predetermined to work with Linux? What national chain could actually claim an affinity with the independent, tinkering, do-it-yourself Linux ethos?

What about RadioShack, that do-it-yourself store in so many malls, with its vision of the customer as a technician? RadioShack is poised – in image as well as in geography – to really bring Linux to the people. And Linux would bring the people to RadioShack. Even now, millions of users are waiting to get started with Linux because they can't think of a place where they could walk in and get support. And contrary to media depictions, Linux users have money – lots of us like to tinker as time permits but would also love to drop a computer off in the morning and pick it up later in the day with a new hard drive or an upgraded graphics cards – without the dumb stares of store clerks pleading "uhh … we only work on Windows."

Branding around Linux could also lead to other synergies for RadioShack. For instance, the open hardware scene – a hot new offshoot of the Linux culture – is ever so close to RadioShack's main business and would lead to lots of sales in circuit boards, transistors, and other electronic parts. As for Android tablets and smartphones, what is Android but more Linux?

Could RadioShack actually remake itself as the store for Linux? Not without a lot of energy, creativity, and style. But whatever they do, they'd better do it quickly. I can picture them now, brainstorming at their next board meeting "… I know there are still do-it-yourselfers out there … if we could only find them … ."

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