PhotoIt lasted 94 years, which is a pretty good run for a retailer. Radio Shack was the first nationwide consumer electronics store, although you might not think of it that way.

For decades, it was the place geeks and tinkerers went to find weird plugs, spare capacitors, odd connectors and other spare parts. It was sort of the nation's junk box for electronics, ham radio and hi-fi hobbyists.

But lately, it's been a sad sort of place where neither customers nor staff are feeling good about things.

"I recently purchased some headphones," said Barry of Bay Shore, NY. "The product doesn't work. When I tried to return it, I couldn't. Thomas, the district manager said, "Who cares we're going bankrupt soon."

Radio Shack stores had sort of a mom-and-pop feel and usually occupied much smaller and more modest quarters than the newcomers in the field -- Best Buy, Circuit City, CompUSA and so forth. But, in fact, they outlasted most of the newcomers, although Best Buy is still around last time we checked.

Peaks and valleys

The changing landscape produced surges in Radio Shack's business. The 1982 AT&T break-up cracked the home and office telephone market wide open, sending consumers to Radio Shack to buy phones, fax machines, answering machines and other devices that were previously off-limits. 

Then cell phones came along and, over time, Radio Shack turned into a major outlet for Sprint, which unfortunately began steadily losing ground to AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and generic prepaid phones. 

Meanwhile, Amazon and other online retailers were quickly becoming the place to go for those pesky HDMI cables, cable modems and DVD players.

My last visit to Radio Shack occurred in Malibu, Calif., a year or so ago. I needed an HDMI cable and Malibu -- 21 miles long and about one block deep -- has no other stores stocking such a thing. You can buy a perfectly adequate HDMI cable on Amazon for less than $5 so I was somewhat surprised when Radio Shack's version was priced at $80.

"This is a mistake, right?" I asked the clerk, who appeared to be about 12.

"Maybe so, but that's the price," he replied.

This tawdry little episode illustrates a big part of Radio Shack's problem. You can get by with charging prices like that when no one knows any better. But when anyone -- even the most tech-averse -- can go online and find for $5 what you're selling for $80, your business model has just taken a major blow.

Radio Shack's long day's journey into night ended late yesterday when it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. About 2,000 or so of its 4,000 stores will be taken over by Sprint and the rest will be closed. 

 


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