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Why Doesn't RadioShack Reinvent Itself as a Makerspace?

The company changed its strategy just when its old one might have started to work again.
March 4, 2014, 9:50pm
Image: RadioShack

RadioShack has been in decline for ages, and you’ve probably spent at least a minute wondering how a store that’s seemingly always empty (seriously, have you ever been inside a crowded RadioShack?) has managed to keep locations open seemingly everywhere. It’s something the company itself lampooned in this year’s Super Bowl, where it touted a brand new strategy of selling things that people actually use today, like cell phones.

The problem is, had it done nothing, Radio Shack would have—potentially inadvertently—put itself in a position to succeed. Instead, it tried to become Best Buy-lite, a move that it has paid for dearly. Tuesday, the company announced it had taken massive losses in the fourth quarter of 2013 and said it would be closing 1,100 stores nationwide, which certainly doesn’t look good for its future prospects.


Where RadioShack has always excelled was with its stock of transistors, soldering irons, tiny screwdrivers, circuits, and electrical wires—things that may have been scoffed at 10 years ago, but things that are increasingly being used by makers, DIY-ers, and gadget hackers. RadioShack has a ready-made trend it should be cashing in on, but it hasn’t. What I’m saying is: Where the RadioShack makerspaces at?

Much like Borders or Barnes and Nobel or Blockbuster or GameStop or any number of stores that sell stuff you can buy cheaper on Amazon, there’s not a whole lot RadioShack can do to keep makers from buying stuff from the comfort of their own homes. But the store has two distinct advantages over most retailers: When you're working on a project and you don't have a part, you want it right away, not when UPS comes in two days.

And everyone reads alone, but makers like solving problems together. There’s a considerably higher barrier to entry to building your own computer, modding electronics, and the general tinkering makers do than there is to reading a book. Sure, you can learn a lot of this stuff through trial and error and with instructional YouTube videos, but the success of makerspaces around the country suggest that people like to do this in a group setting.

It’s a model that has saved card shops and game stores around the country. Magic the Gathering cards and Settlers of Catan are much cheaper to buy online, but still you’ve got hobby shops that thrive by hosting MTG drafts and Dungeons and Dragons tournaments. RadioShack could do the same by hiring some experts to run DIY workshops to walk newbies through the process.

The company hasn’t completely ignored the DIY scene. It has had a booth at various Maker Faire conventions around the country (hosting a “learn-to-solder” area at one in New York last year), and the company has sold a few MAKE-branded products since, but there have been no indications that RadioShack has made any sort of change in its strategy to solidify itself as the place to go for makers.

It’s not too late, but everything the company has done lately suggests that it’s going to keep betting on cell phones and other stuff you can buy everywhere else, like Roku boxes and Beats headphones. In fact, the company has realized it has to change, but it’s going in the wrong direction. Its new “concept” stores—the first one opened in Manhattan last summer—have focused on “highlighting in-demand brands like Apple, HTC, and Samsung, as well as mobile carriers such as AT&T, Spring, and Verizon.”

Even if it did try to open up makerspaces, the company would still probably have to scale back—there’s definitely not room for 61 RadioShack DIY centers in New York City—but if it made the move, at least it’d be doing something relatively cutting edge instead of slowly marching towards its inevitable death.