Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

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When I was in high school, I chose to take computer programming as an elective. It was the first year my school offered the class, and when I arrived at the brand-new computer lab, I was greeted by row after row of Tandy TRS-80 personal computers.

It was 1982 and the computer had been on the market for less than five years. It had a green on black display and was attached to a cassette tape drive to store our rudimentary BASIC codes. At the time, it was the coolest thing I had ever seen. When I expressed my excitement to my friend Mark, he scoffed and said, “That thing’s a piece of crap. You need to come over to my house and I’ll show you a real computer.” My puzzled look hid my disappointment. “My Commodore 64 blows this thing away. Come on, nobody shops at RadioShack anymore!”

I took Mark up on his offer, and we ended up using his Commodore 64, which attached to his color TV, to create a text-based role-playing werewolf game that earned us some extra credit. And as 14-year-old boys tend to do, I vastly overvalued the opinion of my peers and took Mark’s comments to heart. Shopping at RadioShack was uncool, and I would avoid the local mall store for the better part of my high school years.

The fact that, 35 years later, RadioShack finely succumbed to its stodgy reputation is a testament to its tenacity. The chain unsteadily rode the waves of consumer electronics’ rising and falling tides — Ham radios, CD radios, PCs, boomboxes, portable cassette players, car phones, VCRs, cellphones, Palm Pilots, digital TVs, shelf systems, routers, iPods and smartphones, you name it — all the while maintaining its utility as, often, the only place in town to get that unusual battery, cable or replacement part.

Then the Internet happened, and despite RadioShack’s formidable catalog loyalist following, the chain never quite leveraged its strengths, and pretty soon sites like Amazon and Newegg were offering even greater selections of CE products, as well as the unique components and accessories that RadioShack had built its empire around.

It’s a classic story of “disrupt or be disrupted” and not unexpected. But, in chatting with industry folks, there is a definite overwhelming sense of sadness around this latest retailer demise, one that outweighs that of other recent tragic store endings.

Part of that, I think, is the fact that every one of us, across multiple generations, grew up with a RadioShack store close by, and inevitably had to shop there for something we couldn’t get anywhere else.

Plus, it is another reminder of how our retail scene is becoming more homogenous. I can shop for groceries at my local Walgreens, and I can shop for medicine and batteries at my local Stop and Shop. I can buy headphones or a smartphone case at both my local 7-11 and my local car wash.

The main lesson here for retailers is simple: Every store is your rival. It’s not enough to have a good product mix; you need to carve your niche. Create an awesome shopping experience (see Apple Stores); don’t just sell to the customer; make that customer’s life better in some small way. Train your floor people to solve problems and sell solutions (there’s no bigger opportunity than in home connectivity). In a nutshell, don’t just aim to be relevant; aim to be necessary. RadioShack used to be. Now it’s not.

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