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The Store That Never Left The ‘80s

My first personal computer was a TRS-80.

When I came to New York for The Associated Press in 1983, they handed me a computer to take to the federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I could write my stories on the laptop-size device, which connected to The AP’s main system via dial-up modem. If my machine was running Microsoft software, it wasn’t apparent on the user end, but the computer did also have some simple programming capabilities. The first, and last, program I wrote was one made using their version of BASIC: a calculator, to allow me to do basic figures on the fly while I wrote my stories.

The TRS-80, one of the earliest mass-produced personal computers, was a huge gamble for its maker. Younger readers may be shocked at the identity of this risk-taking innovator: RadioShack.

Back in the ‘80s, I went to RadioShack fairly regularly for small household electronics and supplies. I was never much of a do-it-yourselfer, and I never operated a CB radio (one of RadioShack’s mainstays), but if I needed cables, connectors or batteries, I could usually count on them being there.

Yet I have barely set foot in a RadioShack store during the past 20 years. RadioShack’s Super Bowl ad last year, in which the ‘80s wanted their store back, depicted pretty much the store I remember.

And judging by the fact that RadioShack is preparing to permanently close up shop, I was not the only one who stayed away.

RadioShack’s decline was hardly sudden. After its glory days of providing a haven for electronics hobbyists and an early source for PCs, it moved into the business of selling cellphones, back when they were an accessory for the wealthy or high-powered businessmen rather than a part of everyday life for most Americans. This worked pretty well at first, but eventually the chain moved away from its service and knowledge-based model to one of trying to upsell customers and steering them toward high-margin items they didn’t need. Yet with limited floor space and with mobile providers opening their own retail locations, RadioShack was left unable to compete. The huge number of stores that had once served as an asset became a burden in the form of rent and other overhead costs unsupported by dwindling foot traffic.

RadioShack also, critically, failed to move quickly or effectively to capture a share of the e-commerce market. By 2006, when it introduced a ship-to-store program, Amazon was already a giant force, and competitors like Best Buy had been selling products online for nearly a decade. (Amazon, it has been rumored, may pick up some of the shuttered RadioShack locations.) This is not to mention RadioShack’s series of misguided initiatives that, as described by Bloomberg, drove away niche customers and failed to attract anyone new to take their places.

The demise of RadioShack, like the slow-motion, ongoing declines of Kmart and Sears stores, tells us a lot about shopping in America today. We still like very big stores, because they can offer one-stop shopping for almost anything we need. You also need a big store to buy a big item, like the TV I plan to get at a post-Super Bowl sale to replace my 13-year-old projection model. You can’t fit an 80-inch television in a RadioShack; it would take up the entire store.

RadioShack’s sales model - ubiquitous but small-footprint stores that sell limited on-site inventories - no longer works. Even Wal-Mart is struggling to maintain its growth and profit margins, and Wal-Mart has all sorts of advantages over RadioShack in terms of scale and distribution. As an example, I can get my car’s oil changed at Wal-Mart; I do a lot of shopping while my car is on the rack. I can’t do that at RadioShack. Even Sears, which is well known for its reliable car service, tends to separate its service centers from its department stores, so I can’t shop while I wait there, either.

In a way, I will miss knowing that RadioShack is out there. But I can’t honestly say I’ll miss RadioShack itself when I have not been inside one in years. There were plenty of warning signs that times were changing and the world was moving to a big-box and online model. Consumers are less and less willing to get in their cars and drive from store to store when everything they need can be delivered to their homes. When they do venture out, there is decreasing reason to go to several small stores when most of what they need is also available in one large, central location. Businesses that refuse to change with the times do so at their grave peril.

I gave up on RadioShack around the time I returned my TRS-80. The company never gave me any reason to look back.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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