brainwagon "There is much pleasure in useless knowledge." — Bertrand Russell


What should Radio Shack do to satisfy the DIY/Maker community?

Radio Shack recently posted this (as yet, not incredibly popular) video asking for feedback on what they could do to support the DIY/Maker community:

I've thought about it off and on for the last couple of days, and read some other blog posts, and I thought I'd give my take on it.

I mostly don't think they can help the DIY/Maker.

First of all, there is a cultural element. While Radio Shacks of the distant past used to be populated by people who might know something about electronics, for the most part when I go into them now I see kids working for minimum wage without any real knowledge or even excitement about electronics. They might be able to help you find the right 1/8" jack Y-connector you need, or a battery, but for the most part, they don't build things and therefore, they aren't really very helpful to those who do. It's nice to have a local store where I might be able to go in and get a voltage regulator or a MPF102, but I haven't interacted with anyone at a Radio Shack in years who could tell me what one was, or even if they had them in stock faster than I could find them in their component cabinets.

Related to the first is that they simply have lost their niche. Thirty years ago, you might expect that you could see something in a Radio Shack store that was innovative and cool. Perhaps it was the TRS-80 or the Model 102. Maybe it was a ham radio or a scanner. Or even just a plain old stereo or radio (yes, they used to be more of a status symbol than they are now). Now, you simply see the same things that you can see at any of the big electronics stores like Best Buy, but you'll probably pay more. They simply aren't as relevent anymore: other than maybe an RC car or some batteries, most people I know don't even consider making an electronic purchase at Radio Shack.

They also have pretty much abandoned the educational niche that they used to be good at. Let's face it, there really wasn't much practical reason to buy a 7400 series TTL gate, but I did, along with some books (probably by Forrest Mims) to help me understand how they work. I built crystal radios and had a 150 in one electronics kit. I learned alot. There are a lot of people today who would like to learn about how to assemble simple electronic and computer gadgets, but they can't get those supplies at Radio Shack.

Lastly, they just aren't innovative. Perhaps it is just because they are carrying the weight of their 4500 or so stores: there isn't a way they can be sufficiently nimble. Small Internet basesd companies like Sparkfun, Adafruit Industries, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, and Seeed Studio are all actively, hungrily trying to develop and market new products, and to make components available to the Maker community. It's these small companies and their innovation that I think are most exciting, and these are the people I feel more comfortable supporting, since it is obvious that these people "get it" to a degree that Radio Shack simply doesn't.

What can Radio Shack do? Realistically, not much. If I was unrealistic? Okay, here are some ideas.

  • Revamp your staff. Stop treating them like minimum wage register-jockies, and pursue those with an interest in electronics and in helping your customers.
  • Bring back kits and educational toys. Consider it fertilizing the ground for the future. If kids aren't exposed to this kind of tinkering, they aren't going to grow into adults with lots of disposable income who tinker.
  • Bring back ham radio equipment. Hams are tinkerers, you probably want them in your store. Radio Shack used to sell pretty decent and reasonably priced ham radio equipment and scanners. Sunspots are on the rise, and 10m will begin to heat up. Take advantage of the recent increase in hams caused by the dropping of the Morse code requirement, and figure out a way to get them into your stores.
  • Pay attention to trends in open hardware, find popular items, and stock them. I'd go to the Shack to get an Arduino if they had them in stock. Or a Bus Pirate. Or some high power Cree LEDs. Or good solar cells and battery chargers.
  • FInd local hacker/maker communities, and help them. Be nimble. Support your local groups by stocking the equipment and components they need.
  • In short, ask yourself what the value is that you are delivering to your customers, and stop viewing them as mindless consumers. If you seriously want their business, seriously pursue it.

What do you all think? What could Radio Shack do for you that would make you cross their doorstep more often?