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Throwback Thursday: Stranger Things Happen

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Everyone has their fond childhood memories. Let’s say there was that great birthday when you turned 10 and your parents finally got you the bike or game console you had always hinted about. Or maybe you still get wistful thinking about that family vacation you took out west to see Disneyland and the Pacific. (A real ocean!)

But what about retail? Not sure what this says about my childhood, but am I the only one who holds a few cherished memories of bygone retail experiences? Think about visiting the mall or a department store around Christmastime and being awed by the spectacular decorations. (Admittedly, my memory here might be getting confused with my recollection of Higbee’s department store in “A Christmas Story.” )

But forget about holiday flash. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of … RadioShack.

That’s right! Maybe you had fun trying to act cool in the food court of your local mall but, let me tell you, the real excitement was in those kind-of-boring, shoe box-shaped stores illuminated, like everything back then, in a bright fluorescent glare.

And what a magical place RadioShack was! It was there where your dad might buy you a CB radio so you could annoy truckers passing by your town on the interstate. Or, where your early-adopter mom could purchase a TRS-80 home computer to put its massive processing power to work on, I don’t know, the invitation list for your 10th birthday?

For me, it was the shelves of wires, cables, switches, transistors and more wires that made it magical. This place had all the ingredients you needed for a fun couple of hours of assembling an electronic science experiment that didn’t really work like you expected and used an awful lot of batteries. (Oh, yeah, RadioShack had batteries, too.)

And it seems I wasn’t the only one in need of assorted electrical trinkets. At its peak, RadioShack was reported to have had around 7,000 stores around the world. Then, the world changed. RadioShack tried to change, too, by, among other things, introducing new store concepts and hopping on various bandwagons. But it failed, repeatedly, resulting in it filing for bankruptcy twice in recent years. Today it oversees a fraction of the locations that were once part of its nerdy empire.

I found conflicting accounts of how many RadioShacks are still out there, but it can’t be a good sign when its online store directory includes a pretend location in a fictional mall in a make-believe town: the Starcourt Mall in Hawkins, Ind., a place known from “Stranger Things” for its top-secret government research facility and posse of meddlin’ kids. I guess it helps to have a sense of humor about these things.

RadioShack fought the good fight. Or maybe “fights” is more accurate. It made the most of the CB craze before most people realized it was almost as dumb as the pet rocks fad. It offered an early home computer before other people came along who could do it better. It tried to get into cell phones, too, but that didn’t work out.

Plus, it was relatively late to e-commerce. Today, the homepage of its online store is dominated by a headline that wants to entice you to “Stay Informed. Stay Entertained (with) AM/FM Weather Radios.” Yes, the perfect device for monitoring Hurricane Hugo in 1989, but not so helpful if you want up-to-the-second updates on COVID-19.

RadioShack’s pain is similar to what many other retailers are experiencing, even those with more focused leadership. Today, of course, wrenching business declines can happen in only a few years, or lately, even quarters. RadioShack’s struggles stretched over decades and were witnessed by generations of consumers.

What can other retailers learn from RadioShack’s story? One popular consensus is that it tried to be too many things, and never got good enough at any of them to fend off more nimble competitors.

“RadioShack could have been Best Buy. It could have been Amazon. It could have become Dell. The paths that RadioShack could have taken are numerous,” said this assessment. “But instead of choosing one, it chose them all, walking away from its place as a hobbyist’s dream.”

Or there’s this harsh view, as reported by CBS MoneyWatch when the New York Stock Exchange suspended trading on the retailer: “I wouldn’t even call this a failure; I’d call it an assisted suicide,” Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern Business School, told Bloomberg. “It’s amazing it’s taken this long for this company to go out of business.”

Like I said, harsh. But, as our headline says, stranger things happen, and I’m hoping RadioShack (or its holding company) can somehow, some way, turn things around. We profiled RadioShack several years ago, during more optimistic times for the organization. “Our demographic today is centered [on] the male consumer who grew up with the brand,” a company executive told our writer. “We’re committed to expanding our audience to teens and young adults while continuing to serve our traditional customer.”

That didn’t turn out as planned, but I think they were on the right track. Only this time, rather than wasting time on consumers who grew up on the brand (i.e., me), they need to work on expanding that audience. It’ll be a proud day when one of my kids asks to borrow the car to go to the new RadioShack in town because they’re jonesing for electronic geegaws, or whatever the company finally has learned to sell successfully. I might ask them to pick up some double As for the old man. Can’t have enough batteries.

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