It’s a beautiful day in Los Angeles, but one step inside one of the city’s remaining Radio Shacks sends you right back into a very sad past. I have been tasked with surveying some of the few remaining RadioShacks of our great nation, and it’s ugly.
I’ve been on the task of checking out the dying chain for awhile; my first stop was at a RadioShack in Cambridge, MA, a stone’s throw from the Harvard and MIT campuses. For fun, I picked up the first damaged-looking phone charger I came across and asked an employee if I could get it for less than the listed price.
“Honestly?” the tired teenager said as another MIT student tried to negotiate the price of a robotic something-or-other down with the weary register operator. “I don’t care.”
This particular location had been picked down to its bones and the remaining merchandise was being advertised between 80 and 90 percent off. I may as well have shoplifted it, and so, summoning my college moxie, I did. The charger didn’t work.
Several days later and back home in California, the closing RadioShacks have been met with a different kind of customer; instead of being picked clean by precocious young Aaron Swartzes, Los Angeles stores are mainly being mined for cheap movie props, with the remaining drones being poached for cameras. No matter where you are, one thing remains consistent: The employees are exhausted, every box is half-open, and everything must go.
Seven RadioShacks within driving distance of me (there are seven RadioShacks within driving distance of me?!) were a part of the massive list of closures announced last month, shortly after the ‘Shack declared bankruptcy for the second time. The newly-announced closures comprise 36 percent of the entire company’s brick and mortar holdings, a full 552 locations that will later become frozen yogurt shops that will probably close within two years. This company-wide wipeout comes after Sprint originally rescued the brand after RadioShack first filed for bankruptcy in 2015, but with both companies now reporting significant losses, the game seems to be over.
Right now, my neighborhood already has two ghost RadioShack locations that have yet to be re-rented over a year after closing. The inactivity means that one of the storefronts has had the dirty silhouette of Nick Cannon — the company’s one-time chief creative officer — haunting the window, spooking off potential tenants. The seven still-running locations I hit had either already purged his image from the store or assured me that the Cannon cutouts had been “promised to someone else,” no matter how many $20 bills I tried to shove at them.
The important thing to remember is that a RadioShack executive somewhere likely said the words, “Nick Cannon will save our electronics store.” And at first, it seemed like the combination of Cannon and Sprint was a winning one. The expansion of Sprint into the brick and mortar RadioShack locations meant the hiring of 3,500 new employees nationwide. Cannon’s endorsement was meant to symbolize a new chapter for the beleaguered store, but as Mariah Carey goes, so eventually goes the nation, and fate was not on Nick’s side.
It wasn’t that long ago that it seemed like RadioShack might make a comeback; Cannon’s hiring came in December 2015, shortly after Sprint had introduced their “store-within-a-store” model to increase foot traffic to the ‘Shack and sell more phones. Like both Sprint and Radio Shack, Cannon was a cultural figure who had been far more relevant ten years earlier, and the trio lurched towards extinction. The Sprint store-within-a-store failed, the the Samsung Galaxy S7 literally blew up, and everything went downhill from there.
Flash-forward a year and a half, and we’re at a particularly tired RadioShack in North Hollywood, with an “Everything on sale!” sign that is doing little to entice the customers. Two of the employees on duty discuss selling the display cases and furniture, and one remarks that a prop house would probably buy out most of them without any problem. I told them that this had already been the case for a location I’d been to downtown, leaving them baffled.
“Why would you go to more than one Radio Shack?” one employee laughed, picking at the logo on his polo shirt.
I worked at Borders Booksellers as a college freshman, while the brand slowly sputtered into obscurity, and so this all feels a bit familiar. It’s refreshing to see employees completely stop trying to up-sell people, but it also feels like you’re witnessing defeat. In no particular order, here are the most depressing things I heard from customers and employees alike:
“I used to go to this store to get batteries for my son’s model helicopter. It was really loud. My wife and I broke it on purpose one night when Sam was asleep and said our dog had stepped on it.” (5804 N. Figueroa)
“We used to sell phones but now, you know, they won’t send us any more, so, you know, we only have a couple.” (1817 Cesar Chavez Ave)
“Pinkberry is taking applications, dog.” “Pinkberry is gay.” “Nah, dog. Pinkberry is hiring.” (1714 S Western Ave)
“I was gonna use this [boom box] in my thesis film but I think it looks too fake.” (482 E Washington Blvd)
“Do you think people are shoplifting? Do you think they even leave the sensors at the front of the store on anymore?” (5804 N. Figueroa)
“This shit is why Mariah divorced Nick Cannon. Swear to God. I would put money on it.” (3422 Wilshire Blvd.)
Of course, things weren’t always so bad. The company has been around for nearly a hundred years, so watching RadioShack disappear into a puff of smoke feels a bit tragic. Since its founding in 1921, the chain had always banked on being the hobbyist’s store of choice, stocking whichever wave of electronics or gadgets had the nation’s attention at the time. The brand also had a sharp eye for anticipating electronic trends for most of its history; some of RadioShack’s best-remembered successes include owning the CB radio craze of the 1970s and being one of the first chains to warm to mass-produced computers in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s.
Blaming the company’s failure on the internet is a lazy way to explain why thousands of tired teenagers nationwide are turning their heads as grown women who know better shoplift phone chargers from their store. RadioShack’s demise can ultimately be blamed on a lack of focus that began in the 1990s, scrapping the computer and circuit boards it had been known for and instead launching a string of failed spinoff stores and failing to develop a desirable mobile platform as competitors like Best Buy slowly but surely began to absorb their customers.
Soon enough, sales began falling as RadioShack inadvertently gave up what used to make it such a successful business: a clear brand that customers knew they could turn to for the latest electronic trends. The company struggled to find its identity in the new millennium, and there went the business.
Their loss, my gain: I bought a drone for $40 and shoplifted another phone charger. This one worked for exactly three hours.