The Rise and Fall of RadioShack

Thursday, May 11th, 2023

I did it. I landed my dream job in spring of 1993. After working at a convenience store for almost two years, I was ecstatic to be offered a salesperson position at RadioShack. I had heard we were in an economic recession, but I was too young to care what that even meant. I was at RadioShack; the pinnacle of where every computer nerd like me would want to work.

Or, so I thought. What I didn’t know at the time was the damaged brand name RadioShack was even in those days. I mentioned I was going there to a few of my regular customers at the convenience store where I worked. Some replied they would try to stop by and say hello (guess what, they didn’t). Others said that hated the place because they didn’t want to give their name and address just to buy batteries. Others said that everything was more expensive than Best Buy for non-name brand merchandise.

What I realized, before I even started, was that I may have made a big mistake. Nonetheless, I pushed forward with my new job. They rushed me through training and put me at the lowest volume store in the city. The store manager, who was a nice guy, was disgruntled because the store lost money, had high customer theft and was not profitable. He warned me that I would probably make minimum wage since I would not sell enough to make commission. At the time, RadioShack paid minimum wage or commission, whatever was the higher amount.

One day, I just got to work. The store opened at 10:00, and it was about 9:45. I was rushing to turn everything on, get the cash and change ready and all of the other things you have to do to open. The new division manager called (they fired the old division manager about two weeks after I as hired) and he proceeded to lecture me because I didn’t answer the phone right. You see, you were supposed to push the new RadioShack credit card to everyone who called. When my manager showed up a few hours later, I told him I was leaving. He said he was leaving too. The dream job became the worst job I ever had in my life.

Other than my experience, what was the cause of the fall of RadioShack? In my opinion, it was the result of the same thing that caused their rise: computers. RadioShack took a gamble in the late 70’s to market home computers. What was thought to be a slightly profitable item ended up being a huge boon to the company. Not only did they make the right decision with their TRS-80 computer, they jumped in on the PC-compatible bandwagon pretty early on. Actually, the Tandy 1000 series was meant to be IBM PCjr compatible, but the PCjr was a marketed disaster and discontinued early on. This actually helped RadioShack immensely. The PCjr had an actual sound chip and a 16-color graphics display, and the Tandy computer copied this as well. This made the Tandy 1000 series of computers better for the home user than any other PC clone. They were also competitively priced while coming with the Deskmate software suite. Some of their computers even had MS-DOS in the ROM chips and the computers would boot and be operational within seconds. There wasn’t a better gaming PC in the 80’s.

However, the fortune of the Tandy line of computers wasn’t going to last. The PC line evolved to have better sound with the Sound Blaster, 256-color graphics with VGA and CD-ROM technology for multimedia. Tandy computers could only keep up with the industry; they were no longer the trendsetters. RadioShack’s last major effort was the Tandy Sensation, a 25 MHz 486SX with a 107MB hard drive, Super VGA and a CD-ROM. It was a nice machine, but more expensive than a comparable computer you could pick up at Best Buy. This was the last computer manufactured by RadioShack as they sold their computer manufacturing business to AST Research. They eventually starting selling Compaq computers and, later on, even sold IBM computers.

Eventually, RadioShack started pushing cell phones as their main business. Although profitable at first, it proved far too difficult to stay competitive when there were kiosks at the mall undercutting their prices. By the time the cell phone providers started opening their own stores, it was all but over for RadioShack. They went through a couple of bankruptcies and ultimately shut down all of their corporately owned stores in 2014. Franchise stores are still around and they have a website presence, but that’s a different story for a different time.

I still have two Tandy 1000 computers at home. I will never sell them or get rid of them unless someone makes me an offer I can’t refuse. I guarantee these computers will be around a lot longer than any MacBook or iPad. They remind me of a time when computers were actually fun.


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