In memory of Radio Shack

Last week Radio Shack filed for bankruptcy, and the world I know will never be the same. HuffPo has a good read on why the company couldn’t survive in it’s current incarnation, and it may not be gone forever, but it won’t look the way it did in its heyday.

It used to be that you’d go down to the radio store for something like this:


And you’d encounter salespeople like this (Dilbert, from 1989):


RadioShack was once the playground of the inventor, the maker and the tinkerer. In the ’70s, Steve Wozniak—Apple’s co-founder—built a device to hack long-distance phone calling out of parts he bought at RadioShack. It was where amateur electronic engineers could pick up computer chips and build their own computers. (Quartz)

Tandy tried all sorts of things to expand its market share, things like Computer City (which lost $60 million for Tandy in 1996) and Incredible Universe, which lost $90 million; we had one of the latter in Utah before it closed in mid-1997.


Incredible Universe tried to be the big splash in electronics; according to Wikipedia,

A typical Incredible Universe was 185,000 square feet (17,200 m2) of sales floor and warehouse, stocking around 85,000 items.

The operation was conceived by former TandyCEOJohn Roach. Many internal corporate philosophies of Disneytheme parks were borrowed; in an Incredible Universe store, retail departments were ‘scenes,’ employees were ‘castmembers,’ uniforms were ‘costumes,’ and so forth.

The stores featured a large rotunda area with an actual stage where sales presentations, product demonstrations, or even occasional musical acts were performed, and various retail departments (software, music and video, and accessories) were accessible from this rotunda. Moving through the rotunda area would lead one to the main storefront where larger consumer electronics and computers were sold.

It included entertainment areas for kids, and a built-in McDonald’s; the sales staff all wore purple shirts and called themselves “grapes.” Below is a commercial for the enterprise, sadly potato quality but at least it gives you the idea:

Here’s the Utah press release:

At a press conference held today in Sandy, Tandy Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John V. Roach and Sandy City Mayor Tom Dolan unveiled plans for the opening of the giant consumer electronics gigastore this fall at the corner of Interstate 15 and 110th Street. “Incredible Universe is an electronics and home appliance store unlike any other in the world. We have created the hottest new shopping concept in America today by combining incredible fun, an incredible selection and incredible first-class service that caters to the entire family,” said Roach.

With sales estimated at $80 million per year, Incredible Universe will provide a local economic boost by adding substantially to the area’s tax base and by creating more than 350 new jobs.

Incredible Universe is so unique that it is often referred to as the “show.” Unlike many stores, guests (or customers) are encouraged to play with the merchandise — more than 85,000 products under one roof.

Guests can also create their own music videos at the sing-along Karaoke studio to test their skills at Virtual Reality and other computerized games. Community groups are invited to perform in the store’s Rotunda, and local celebrities make special appearances.

While adults shop, small children can entertain themselves with electronic toys and games in a supervised children’s play area called KidzView. Or, the entire family can take a break from shopping at the McDonald’s restaurant located inside.

Leading-edge guests can visit three state-of-the-art Multimedia Rooms to experience the combination of personal computers, full motion video, and home theater in a home setting; video teleconferencing in an office or Board Room setting; and DSS (Digital Satellite System), the latest in home satellite technology.

The newest creation in the Universe is a multimedia “library” with more than 2,500 different CD-ROM software titles. Other features of the store include a Home Theater, a computer-equipped Kitchen Design Center, and a giant-screen video display.

The 85,000-plus products available at Incredible Universe include 342 different televisions, 72 video cassette recorders, 60 camcorders, 181 refrigerators, 83 washers and dryers, 575 home and personal audio products, 300 car stereo/mobile products, 48 personal computers, and more than 70,000 music and movie titles.

Incredible Universe gigastores are open in the metropolitan markets of Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, Sacramento, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Columbus, Dallas, and Arlington, Texas. In addition to the Salt Lake City market, other new locations planned for 1995 include the Denver, New York Metro, Indianapolis, Houston, and greater Washington, D.C., markets. Corporate headquarters are located in Fort Worth, Texas.

The concept was launched just as stores like Circuit City and Best Buy were rising in popularity, and ultimately the huge mega-stores couldn’t compete. Buildings were so large they found no buyers, and Tandy had to sell them for pennies on the dollar. Six of the 15 stores were acquired by Frye’s, and one in Texas became a community college building.

I was a longtime Radio Shack customer and watched the evolution with interest. There were times I asked myself how long the enterprise could survive, given what I saw happening to the offerings and the staff.


Radio Shack’s batteries were the cheap ones from China, but when you have three kids and a gazillion electronic toys, free batteries were always welcome. At one point we sprang for a bunch of rechargables and a charger, which probably saved a few quatloos in the long run.


Robie still sits on my dresser, eating quarters with gusto.


This is, effectively, a 3-band hearing aid. We inherited this one from someone else, but it works like a champ.


One of the most useful devices I’ve ever had around the house. I wish it did the little mercury ones (I have a voltmeter for that) but this still works.


Pocket “Simon.” Finally sold this one on eBay along with some other puzzles, but part of me wishes I had kept it just for the nostalgia value. But I’m sure my buyer is enjoying it.

There were countless other toys and gimmicks, as well as a pretty respectable combination turntable, dual cassette deck, CD player, and AM/FM stereo set we had for about 30 years; I just barely finished ripping my LP’s to digital format with it before it finally gave up the ghost.

Christmas time at Radio Shack was great in the 80s; there were countless fun gimmicks and toys, RC cars and trucks, and lots of things that kids would enjoy. As time went on, though, the offerings of this nature became slimmer and slimmer; cell phones became the dominant push, and everything else was secondary. According to the HuffPo article I referenced above,

RadioShack lost sight of who they were. Technology changed rapidly, but their gadgets did not, and many of them were rendered obsolete as smartphones came into the picture with apps that easily replaced them. They didn’t focus on the right things, and that led to fruitless attempts to become relevant once again.

Whether the company will survive in some form or other, or be acquired, or simply fade into oblivion, remains to be seen. For me, the most poignant image was not even real, but cleverly photoshopped – but it expressed in a single picture what I have been feeling over the last couple of weeks, as I digested the news of an old friend’s passing:


The Old Wolf has spoken.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s