The Rise and Fall and Rise again of HeathKit and Radio Shack

The story of the rise and fall of companies like HeathKit and Radio Shack is a fascinating and complex subject. I’m going to restrict this to the comeback of both companies. One is almost certainly doomed to failure. The other might manage to hang on and perhaps even succeed.

Let’s look at HeathKit first.

I began getting emails from the company that were a bit, well, odd and, frankly, stupid. Vague announcements that said nothing, press releases that seemed to promise a lot but if you actually read the words, said, well, nothing… They had a web site! Hooray! But there was, well, nothing on it. They kept issuing press releases that promised new kits, upgrades to old kits… Sort of? If you ignored the fact that the tiny, tiny type at the end hinted that, well, maybe not…

Finally, at last, HeathKit is back! Hooray! Yippee!

Yeah, well, don’t get out the champagne just yet, because after all the years of the hype, all of the build up, all of the promises, what we got is this…

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Yeah, that’s it. An AM radio kit. Oh the joy, oh the rapture… Break out my blood pressure pills someone before I faint…

An AM radio kit. For $150.

Note the ultra clean, modern hipster design that eliminates all those unnecessary bells and whistles. Like labels. Or a dial indicator to tell you what frequency it’s tuned to. Or a volume control. Or some kind of indication that the thing is even turned on.

Well to be fair, you don’t need a volume control, I suppose, because it doesn’t have a speaker.

Oh, there’s a speaker for it, or there will be one “real soon now”. A powered amplified speaker. At extra cost, of course. Oh, goodie…

Meanwhile, just plug your headphones into one of the two (Yes, Two! Count them! Two!) headphone jacks.

And all of this can be yours for just $150! Damn, where did I put my blood pressure pills…

Oh, brother… Look, I am going to be brutally honest here. This is just ridiculous. Look, I could literally build this radio out of parts from the junk box in the basement for nothing. Even if I had to buy all of the parts brand new it would cost me less than $30. And for that I’d throw in a speaker and some labels.

But, you say, they must be selling something besides just this, right? Their entire inventory can’t consist of a single radio?

Well, no. Not really. You can get some parts for an old nixie tube clock, a ‘stealth’ VHF antenna that you could build yourself for half the cost, and copies of old HeathKit manuals, and that’s about it. Oh, and little plastic cups for a wind speed indicator.

Now let’s look at the remains of Radio Shack. Yes, it’s still around. While large parts of it were sold off during the bankruptcy, it entered into some kind of partnership with Sprint, and it looks promising.

One of the biggest problems Radio Shack had was it’s entry into the cell phone market. Now the problem when you’re a brick and mortar store that sells cell phones is that people know where you live. In other words, if something goes wrong, they come pounding at your door and demand you fix it. Right now!

This takes up a hell of a lot of time on the part of the sales staff. Which means they can’t take care of people who actually want to buy stuff. Almost every time I’ve been in a Radio Shack store, anywhere, in the past few years, I’ve never been able to actually get someone to take my money.

Seriously. I’d be standing there with whatever little gadget or part I wanted, money in hand, right there at the cash register, and I’d end up giving up in disgust and putting it back and leaving after standing there for ten, twenty, thirty minutes, and all because   the staff were trying to activate phones, or trying to explain why your dropping your phone in a toilet is not their problem or whatever.

Needless to say, this business model was not very successful. It’s hard to make money in retail if your staff is too busy with non-paying customers to even ring up a sale.

But Sprint is now taking over the cell phone part of the business, and will have their own staff in the stores. Radio Shack will, I’ve been told, be Radio Shack once more, selling dopey little gadgets, toys, and even actual real electronics parts and tools.

And it may actually be happening because I ran into this…

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Yes, it’s a kit. A Radio Shack branded kit. In this case a Theremin, but there were a half dozen more on the rack along with this one. And there were parts. And soldering kits. And multimeters. And breadboards. And power supplies. And, of course, the usual selection of goofy, stupid and sometimes fun little gadgets.

I picked it up for $20 because, well, come on… A theremin? Admit it. You’ve always wanted one.

Now, you can imagine which one of these companies I think has a better chance of successfully resurrecting itself.