I Miss RadioShack of the 1980's

February 14, 2015

As I am sure many of you have heard, RadioShack is currently filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and closing some 1700+ stores nationwide. This is coming almost exactly a year after their famous The 80's called and they want their store back Super Bowl ad. I remember watching that ad and laughing like everyone else, but at the same time also thinking that the approach was wrong. RadioShack shouldn't be trying to get away from the eighties. In fact I think they should be trying to get back to the eighties, and they should be trying almost as hard as Marty McFly was.

This isn't the first time that RadioShack has had a brush with bankruptcy. The first was in the early sixties, and it was saved when acquired by the Hinckley-Tandy Leather Company in 1962. Shortly thereafter, they abandoned their line of leather products, and focused mainly on the consumer electronics market.

Fast-forward fifteen years to the dawn of home computers, and everyone thinks of Altair and Apple leading the charge. But RadioShack released a very successful home computer, known as the TRS-80 in 1977. At a time when most home computers were sold as parts or kits that needed soldering, the TRS-80 was a complete unit. Although discontinued in 1981, its direct ancestors (the TRS-80 Color Computer models 1, 2 and 3) continued to do well throughout the eighties.

This brings us to my favorite RadioShack product line. In 1984, RadioShack released the first Tandy 1000 personal computer (PC), as a way to get into the emerging IBM PC-compatible home computer market. And it was a huge success.

That's right. RadioShack used to compete head-on with a giant like IBM, in the home computer market. Actually “compete” isn't the right word. Unless of course “compete” means to to “utterly mop the floor with,” then “yes” RadioShack used to “compete” with IBM.

As a successful software developer today, I owe a lot of my success to my Mother. And indirectly, to RadioShack. In 1987 my Mom bought us a Tandy 1000EX. I not only played games on it, but I learned to program (BASIC) on it. Eventually, I started to spend more time on my Tandy than on our Atari 2600.

Of course, there were tons of games for the Tandy 1000. But RadioShack also sold extra add-ons and peripherals, such as memory upgrades, modems, printers, and joysticks. While most kids of the eighties coveted the Christmas catalogs from Sears or J.C. Penny, I would drop everything when the new RadioShack catalog came out.

I got to know the salesmen at RadioShack, as they gave us computing tips and floppy disks loaded with public domain programs. They helped run the local computer users' group. One of them even ran a regionally-popular dial-up bulletin board system (BBS), which I was on almost daily with my 300 baud modem. When I went to the mall as a teenager, RadioShack was one of my default stops. Even if I didn't need anything, I would go in just to look around and say “hi” to the guys. RadioShack succeeded in the eighties because back then they sold consumer electronics that helped create personal connections.

I was relieved to read the the RadioShack store from my youth (in Sheboygan, WI) was not slated to be closed. But even if was I back home and happened to be in that mall, I can't say that I would stop in. I'm sure the guys who were salesmen when I was a kid are long gone. Hell, I haven't even walked into the RadioShack in Janesville, and I've lived here for 14 years. They just no longer have a product that I can connect with. That, and I have no desire to have a salesman try and push a new smart phone or wireless plan on me.

Yes, I'll agree that RadioShack needs to reinvent itself to survive. But more-so, they need to have a product that people can connect with. Now I'm not saying that they should get back into manufacturing personal computers. Although I do have to admit, that if they did a re-issue of the 1000 or the Color Computer 3 (like Atari is doing with their “Flashback” console), that I would buy one in a heartbeat.

So I do miss the RadioShack of the eighties. It was a time when they had droves of supporters and people who adored their products. if RadioShack wants to rekindle their success, perhaps that is a time they should look at and try to figure out what they were doing right.

Aaron Ploetz

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