24 May 2007

Shack Attack

The other day I was upgrading some of the cables and connections of my A/V setup (more on that soon) and determined that I needed to split the signal that comes in through the coaxial cable so it could go to two separate devices. This is easily done with a little doohickey called, accurately enough, a splitter. But getting one meant I had to go to an electronics store, which is one of my least favorite shopping destinations.

This might be surprising to some, considering my love for technology, but I generally find these places highly annoying and depressing, and tend to buy my gear online from privately held, customer-focused companies like J&R or Crutchfield. (
I considered buying the splitter online, but it seemed silly for something so small, plus I needed/wanted it quicker.)

The sole purpose of a store like Best Buy or Circuit City is to get you to part with as much of your money as possible. I'm sure you're thinking, isn't that the purpose of all retail stores? Sure, but consumer electronics chains are more blatant and sleazy about it than, say, Nordstrom. They want your money too, but they aren't going to try to push you into an extended warranty for that pair of pants.

I decided I could either stop at a store on my way home from work, or make a special trip on a day I wasn't working. I opted to do it on the way home, making the errand slightly less painful and not wasting my free time. Then I started wondering if there might be another place I could get the part, and into my brain drifted the words "Radio Shack."

Remember them? They're still around. How that's possible is anyone's guess, since they ceased being relevant to the marketplace nearly three decades ago, around the time the CB radio craze had run its course (I'm speaking from personal experience here, but don't judge me; I was still pretty young, and pretty bored). And just last year there was the CEO who resigned after lying about his academic credentials, and a few months later the company's decision to inform several hundred employees that they had been laid off via email. A real shining star in the retail firmament there.

But they are still in business, somehow. In the scheme of things my few dollars wouldn't make much difference either way, and I wasn't planning on buying anything else there for, oh, ever. And when I considered it, stopping at a Shack was actually on my way home, not even half a block from a T station, which made it less trouble than going somewhat out of my way to Best Buy. (Maybe that's how they've managed to keep going--by being more convenient?) I was also sort of curious to see what the place was like, since I hadn't been in one for at least ten years. What
were they selling? Who shopped there?

The answer to the first question was mostly cell phones and the mountains of crap that go along with them, and other miscellaneous stuff of about the same quality (poor) as the electronics you'd find at Target. The answer to the second question, at least at 5:30 on a Thursday afternoon, was nobody, or rather nobody else besides me. Three clerks were standing around, talking and looking excruciatingly bored. I found the splitter in less than a minute, paid for it, and got on my way.

Back in the day, if you bought something at Radio Shack, you could be assured of being put on their mailing list for what seemed like the rest of your life. Instead of putting their flyers in the Sunday newspapers like everyone else, they chose to mail them to millions of customers, roughly every couple of weeks. If you asked not to give your name to cut down on the junk mail, the clerk would tell you it was store policy and that you had to do it. It got to the point that, when I did have to buy something there, I always paid in cash and gave a fake name at an old address, simply out of spite. I guess they finally figured out that wasn't the most customer-friendly way of doing things.

Before I went to the store, I had checked the web site to make sure they did in fact carry what I needed, and to confirm that the store I wanted to stop at was indeed still open. The site was actually pretty okay, with decent navigation and lots of subcategories to narrow my search. As with some other clicks-and-bricks retailers, I could place an order and have it shipped to a store to pick up, and not have to pay a shipping charge.

It made me think that, while they might have missed the bus with regard to their store operations, they seemed to have grasped the
basics of online retailing. Maybe that's the future of the company, after the stores wither and die. And we can all look forward to spam from them for the rest of our lives.

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