This is from an email I sent out today.
I thought I would relay my experiences at two Radio Shack stores in my area on Sunday, December 11. I think they are illustrative of both the strengths and weaknesses of Radio Shack’s current policies and (perceived) corporate strategy.
I was in need of what I knew as a “pin puller”, a tool used to retrieve conductive pins from the Molex connectors used in much of modern electrical/electronic devices and systems. I had mis-wired a component of my hot tub’s filtration system and needed to reconfigure the connector. No amount of jigging with a tiny screwdriver would wrest the pins from their housing. So off to Radio Shack I went.
I first visited the Radio Shack on 148th Street in Burien, Washington. The store was fairly busy, as you can imagine for this time of year. There were perhaps five to ten shoppers crammed into the arterioscelrotic aisles, making their holiday purchases. There were also four salespeople in attendance, which I must say is an admirable employee-to-customer ratio. Kudos to you.
A young woman approached me and asked me if I needed any help. “Yes, thanks,” I said, “I’m looking for a, well, I’m not sure what you call it, but I’ve always known it as a ‘pin puller’. It’s a tool for removing pins from electrical connectors.”
The look on her face said it all. Hmm, that look said, that doesn’t sound like a battery, a cellular phone or a radio-controlled car. What the heck do I do now?
“I don’t think we have any of those,” she replied. Let me check the computer, okay?” She made for the counter.
“Okay, thank you,” I said. I began to wander the aisles.
As I did I noticed what has become a recurring and increasingly pervasive theme at Radio Shack; the ever-dwindling quantity of actual electronic components, versus finished products. Time was that Radio Shack was the place you went for all your hard-core electronics-nerd needs; a slightly dusty hole-in-the-wall joint, staffed by pocket-protectored engineering majors and AV-club wonks. If you didn’t know what you needed, they could probably figure it out for you.
The Radio Shack of today is quite different, and I really can’t fault you for it. I imagine the decision was reached somewhere in your corporosphere that, if your company was to maintain growth, you would have to spiff up both your image and your product line.
That would be about the time your line of in-house products was rebadged, migrating from the brand name “Realistic” over to to the edgier, more Transformer-like “Optimus”.
In addition, you started selling a bunch of stuff heretofore unknown to your display windows. The low-cost audio mixers and LED readouts were replaced by cordless phones and Casio-clone electronic keyboards. A veritable fleet of RC cars moved in, knocking the resistors and EPROMs from their shelves. Finally, cellular phones and satellite TV forced the final dregs of your original stock into a holding action, cowering on a lone shelf, betwixt the multimeters and the wire strippers.
Like I said, I don’t blame you for changing on me, though I wish it hadn’t come to this. Fortunately for myself, I live within the boundaries of a large, technologically-oriented community; the Puget Sound region. There are a half-dozen companies that have picked up your forsaken ball and run with it.
Unfortunately, none of them are open on Sunday.
Eventually the girl helping me came back and told me that they don’t carry a “pin puller”. I knew Radio Shack had to carry the thing, but I had been unable to find it on any of the aisles.
A second employee overheard her and said, “What’s he looking for?”
“I think it’s called a pin puller,” I replied. “You use it to extract pins from electrical connectors. I’m pretty sure you sell them.”
The young man came around the counter and approached me, his short black hair gelled into a billion glistening spikes. “Nah, we don’t sell those”, he said dismissively. “If we did they’d be over there.” He gestured to the tool aisle, home of the wire strippers and multimeters and the last of the (softly whimpering) electronic components.
I wanted to say “Well, which is it; you don’t sell them, or they’re over there?” But I didn’t. I’d pretty much had my fill of this particular Radio Shack, staffed as it was seemingly exclusively by uninspired and/or surly teenagers. They’d probably be just the people to help me if I wanted a new cell phone, but since I actually needed them to step outside the boundaries of their immediate worldview and apply themselves to answering a question that wasn’t intuitively obvious to them, all hope was lost. I might as well have asked the carpet. I headed home.
Of course, Radio Shack does indeed sell such a device; Product SKU#274-233. It’s known in your product literature as a “pin extractor“, not a pin puller. That neither your staff nor your software was capable of looking for a synonym of “pull” I take as an ominous sign.
Fortunately, after consulting your Web site (why I did not do this in the first place is beyond me. I suppose I was thinking that the store would either stock the product and sell it to me, or it wouldn’t, and it wouldn’t. I hadn’t really planned for a situation in which the item I sought would be withheld from me, despite being both an item you sell and in stock at that particular store), I was able to call another local Radio Shack store (23227 Pacific Highway South in Kent) and confirm that a) the pin extractor was in stock, and b) they were willing to actually find the thing for me so I could buy it.
The folks at the Kent store were top-notch, both much older on average than those at the Burien store and much more knowledgeable and service-oriented. Whether these two facts are related to each other is not my place to say.
Perhaps this odd employee dichotomy is also part of your corporate strategy. I can imagine a plane of reality in which it is to Radio Shack’s advantage to staff their stores according to local customer demographics, perhaps corralling the text-messaging teenage hardbodies in the store that serves a younger, less nuts-and-bolts clientele, and reserving the more modest, out-of-the-way stores for those salespeople who know their capacitors from their elbows. If so, I salute your efforts, but you might dedicate some thought to figuring out a way to clue your customers in. Radio Shack versus Radio Shack Lite, perhaps? A color-coding scheme? Forehead tattoos?
All of this is not to say that I now loathe Radio Shack or would never shop there again. I don’t quite know what to make of my experience. I certainly know I’ll never enter the Burien store again, and perhaps this is best for all involved. It may be, as I hypothesized above, that the Burien store is simply—and intentionally—not designed for customers like myself. If this is the case, then all is proceeding exactly as planned. There is demographically-driven retail stratification under the heavens, and the situation is excellent.
If, on the other hand, it is not Radio Shack Corporation’s intention to drive certain types of customers away from specific stores and towards others—or towards your competitors—then you might want to give your general retail-space staffing methodology a little going-over.