RadioShack makes its case for relevancy

One of my many undistinguished postings was a summer job as an assistant manager of a Radio Shack (then spelled as two words) in a strip mall in Rock Springs, Wyo. Dante couldn’t think of a better description of hell.

This was in 1982, and Radio Shack was actually a pretty happening electronics retailer, selling cordless phones, turntables, circuit boards, resistors and a magical something called a TRS-80 Color Computer, with which one could glimpse the future’s horizons in a game called Starfire.

What I remember about my six weeks behind the counter: a politically incorrect mnemonic for resistors’ color coding system; Ohms triangle; and the incredible awkwardness of asking each customer for his or her mailing address so that they could receive direct-mail advertising. It was like asking every customer if I could sleep on his couch.

It all came back to me in a jolt when I saw the ad circular in my newspaper for “The Shack,” the nickname the company has given itself as part of its re-branding initiative that was unveiled last week. “The Shack is fluent in mobile,” screamed the flier (as part of the re-branding, RadioShack Corp. will emphasize mobile and wireless devices and a strategic alignment with T-Mobile). The Shack? Does he still play for Cleveland?


The object is to brighten and contemporize the brand’s image, according to chief marketing officer Lee Applbaum. The Fort Worth company’s new agency of record (Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners) will try to turn RadioShack’s $200-million advertising budget into increased market share with an integrated campaign including in-store displays, print, digital media, billboards, all featuring the new blocky, all-cap, san-serif type. Here comes the SHACK attack.

Now, the “Shack” -- hmmm, still feels forced -- has lots of problems, beginning with big-box retailers such as Best Buy, WalMart and Target, which suck up much of the oxygen in the consumer electronics space.

The company’s sales have declined by about $1 billion in four years ($4.2 billion in 2008), leading to a slew of store closings and a cratering stock price.

The chain is also notorious for lousy customer service, which is how it came by its real nickname, RadioShaft. I’ve been in two RadioShacks in the last year and -- though the service was OK -- the spaces were murky and unlovely and the merchandise seemed kind of tossed about. And of course I should know, being the former assistant manager of the Rock Springs store.

So there’s work to do, and a re-branding effort is not a horrible idea.

But I don’t think the RadioShack name brand is the problem. In fact, I think it’s ineffably charming with the potential to be positioned as hip and retro-modern, even steampunk.

There’s poetry in the RadioShack name. The phrase originally referred to the cabins aboard ships where the Marconi wireless was kept, and it had a built-in nostalgia for millions of servicemen after World War II, who would have known field communications centers as “radio shacks.” My former brother-in-law manned such a facility in Vietnam.

I concede that in an age of downloadable everything, younger consumers wouldn’t know a radio if it fell on them from a great height. But allow me to make the case for something I think of as anachronistic cool.

The logo for Coca-Cola, the world’s most valuable brand, is written in a century-old Spencerian script that might as well be Cyrillic to texting teens; yet you would never change it, because it suggests exquisite permanence and durability, an exoticism of something that has lasted forever. As a consumer brand, Coca-Cola is like the pyramids.

Ditto General Electric, whose name and quaint 19th century scrollery in the logo are artifacts of the days of Thomas Edison and hardly reflective of the aviation-entertainment-armament goliath today. General Electric is a company name that comes out of a completely different zeitgeist, a time of fuses and filaments and knife switches. Yet you’d be crazy to change it. Or shorten it.

The best example is a brand that would seem hopelessly out-of-date but is instead perfectly timeless: 20th Century Fox. This isn’t the name of a movie company. This is the cinematic face of a nation at the height of its powers.

The most troubling part of the Shack re-branding is that it reflects the steep decline in the electronics hobby segment, and America’s growing technical illiteracy. When I worked there, about 20% of my day was spent ferreting out tubes and transistors for ham radio enthusiasts and kids putting together school experiments.

That part of the business has all but gone away. This illiteracy seems to have reached RadioShack’s own corporate offices. For a company that wants to talk up its expertise in mobile phones, no one seems to have noticed that mobile phones are radios!

Sometimes old, obsolete and anachronistic brands have a magic, an authenticity about them that can’t be reasoned out. In RadioShack’s case, dropping the “radio” might make a certain sense, but it seems like a huge loss of distinctiveness in the market.

If the “Shack” is just a small-box electronics retailer going up against Best Buy, what do you think the outcome will be? Turn out the lights in the shack.