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adioS: The end of RadioShack, through the eyes of a store manager

After 94 years in business, RadioShack -- one of the most recognizable retail brands in American history -- is rapidly disappearing. Jon, a former employee, talks to a current store manager over the course of its dying days.

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First, I wish I could take full credit for that art up top. I cannot. It was inspired by a photo originally tweeted out by @textfiles earlier this month.

In the wake of RadioShack's recent bankruptcy filing, the retail giant has moved to close or re-brand all of its store locations. Stock is being wildly re-distributed, furniture and fixtures are being sold off, and employees are losing their jobs.

Over the last couple weeks, I've been emailing back and forth with a RadioShack store manager, who we'll call "Mike." Mike's store has clearance signage everywhere, and is on the verge of shuttering for good. His severance pay was originally slashed, and eventually denied altogether. His store has very few batteries, but hundreds of t-shirts to sell.

"RadioShack is awesome," he told me. "The company of RadioShack sucks."

Within, Mike and I talk about RadioShack, its end, and how it got here.



What have the last couple months been like for you and the people around you? What's the general state of morale?


The last few months we've been waiting for the axe to fall. The company itself doesn't tell us much, and when they do it's in business speak: "We are right-sizing our operation and have already made many changes that have resulted in savings." Weeks of waiting are punctuated by the occasional sudden decision. One Friday in early December, they fire half the district managers. No warning.

This week is a good example. There are news reports swirling that RadioShack will file bankruptcy, that Sprint is taking over the leases on half the stores, that the company is being de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange. We have yet to hear a thing from the company. Not one word.

It's the not knowing that sucks.


This week, shoppers pick through what remains of a RadioShack in Gurnee, Ilinois. (Photo credit: @RandallJSanders)


As Mike was writing this email on February 5, the news broke.


Hey dude, thanks so much for getting back. I'm not sure whether you've heard the news just yet, but it was just officially announced that RadioShack has indeed filed for bankruptcy.


I actually pressed send right before I answered a phone call. An employee was on the line informing me that he just heard.

It's more of a relief, in many ways. An end to the waiting.

Well, that's not entirely true. We still have no idea what bankruptcy means for us. It's a beginning to the end of the waiting.


So, this is a big question that I'm guessing doesn't have a simple answer. What do you think went wrong with RadioShack? Do you think there's anything the company could have done to save itself? Any bad ideas it could have avoided, or good ideas it completely missed out on?


My business sense is rotten, so I really have no idea what RadioShack should have done. I've worked for the company for over five years, but even five years ago people were wondering what went wrong with RadioShack. My guess is that most roads led to bankruptcy.

I don't know how, exactly, but there is this romance to RadioShack. People come in all the time and have nostalgia trips ("I remember coming here as a kid!"). They will look over the parts ("You still carry these!"). They will definitely check out the electronics learning kits. Maybe I just recognize this because it's what I did myself when I applied for a job.

Just a couple months back, a mom came into the store with her two sons. The older son had a science project, and I was helping them find the parts. We were opening up LED's switches and batteries and testing things out at the counter. It was fun! What I remember, though, is the younger son -- he must have been about 6 or 7. He was walking the aisles, and every now and then he would ask me "what's this?" or "what does this do?" I'd tell him that it's called a soldering iron and try to explain soldering as simply as I could. Sometimes I'd manage a decent explanation, sometimes I'd bungle it and use too many big words. No matter what I said, he looked at me like I was the coolest guy ever, working the coolest job, surrounded by the coolest stuff.

So, yeah, as weird as it sounds sometimes, there's a romance and nostalgia about RadioShack.

But then there's the disenchantment. There's the sales. There's getting customer phone numbers and addresses, suggesting batteries, offering extra insurance.


Did RadioShack go back to asking customers for names and addresses?


We've asked for phone numbers and addresses and emails for as long as I've worked for the company. It might not be emphasized as strongly as it used to be: I generally only get them for larger purchases, not for a single pack of batteries. If we go by the book, with every customer we should be asking for a phone number or email, suggesting batteries, pitching service plans, asking about their wireless service, and circling the bottom of the receipt where it tells the customer how to give feedback. You know, the kind of transaction guaranteed to drive customers nuts.



Mike elaborated on the last three months of the RadioShack experience.

Rumors circulated that we might not make it through the holidays. Store operating hours were trimmed. Another loan came through. Half the company's district managers got fired on a December Friday.

Around this time, they turned some stores into clearance hubs, a.k.a. end-of-life stores or RadioShack outlets. These stores shipped out their high value product (like cell phones) and then were shipped clearance items from all the other stores. The entire store would be 25 percent off. I wasn't part of the first wave. Another store was, and I heard how the manager and his two employees were suddenly shipped 100 boxes of unsellable crap. Cheap plastic cases for seldom-sold phones, a dozen P.A. amplifiers, hundreds of RadioShack t-shirts.

The t-shirts had been distributed last summer. We were shocked, shocked to find that they would not sell. But I expect them to sell now that we've gone bankrupt as a kind of novelty reminder.



Just before Christmas, I found out that my store would become a clearance hub. Did this mean that my store would be closing? No, nobody said anything about closing. I only ask because these big, bright red and yellow "Clearance Blowout!" signs that you sent us sure make us look like Mattress Factory Outlet Shack.

I was rather lucky because I didn't receive a huge shipment of unsellable crap. I just had to ship out all my cell phones, and my routers, and my Beats headphones and my batteries.


I'm still getting over the fact that they took away all your AA batteries. A RadioShack not having those is like a grocery store not having salt. Have customers given you any funny looks over that?


Technically, I was never 100 percent out of AA batteries. We always had some 48-packs. For some reason, people didn't want to pay $22.49 for a 48-pack of AA batteries when all they needed was two. It felt quite strange having to recommend customers try the nearby drug store.

Late in January, we found out that rent hadn't been paid. We received a pay-or-vacate notice from our landlord. I forwarded that on to my bosses. Since then I haven't heard anything about it from RadioShack or from my landlord.

This reminded me of a couple cases I know of where a manager found out that his store was closing from someone other than RadioShack. In one case, a landlord came by mid-month and asked the manager if he was going to be able to have the store cleared by the end of the month. In another, some guys came in to the store to take measurements. The manager asked who they were, and they told him that they worked for the company who would be moving into the location after we left. "You mean they didn't tell you?" That manager had worked for the company for 30 years.

It was obvious that RadioShack wanted to close our store, but, remember, they couldn't close more than 200 in a business year.



I realized today that I'm being rather of two minds about RadioShack. Part of me defends it. I'm guessing that you saw the John Oliver clip on RadioShack, and when he talks about the jokey way in which the company is being dismissed, well, that's exactly what makes me want to defend it.

On the other hand, when I hear about how the bankruptcy has now abruptly stopped severance payments for former employees -- including the 140 district managers who were abruptly fired in December just a few days after the severance policy was changed, both by lowering the amount paid and by switching from an immediate lump sum to bi-weekly payout-well -- then I feel like burning what remains of the company to the ground and spitting on its grave. Never forget: RadioShack doesn't care about its employees.


Is there something y'all had or have in your inventory that stands out as particularly old or useless?


There are the phone cases. The phone cases are really just a matter of cell phone obsolescence. You try to have cases for the phones that you're selling, but it's inevitable that there's some waste here. Some of the cases won't get sold. Obviously, these need to be put on clearance and later scrapped.

For a long, long while, RadioShack refused to write off the growing backlog of obsolete phone cases. We'd reset the phone case section, and we'd have to cram these along the bottom row. So much work and so much messiness for some cases that had been priced down to 50 cents. Heck, once I was so fed up with it that I took $10, bought 20 cases, and threw them away. (Afterwards, part of me wondered if this was RadioShack's nefarious plan all along.)

Oh! I also just recalled when RadioShack decided to sponsor Lance Armstrong on his comeback tour. Remember when Lance Armstrong was an American hero? When everyone was wearing a LiveStrong bracelet? Yeah, that would be when RadioShack chose to sponsor him. RadioShack sold the bracelets. (Is it "selling" when it's a donation?) Heck, we even sold his big picture book, "Comeback 2.0: Up Close and Personal." Meanwhile, Lance was falling further and faster than RadioShack ever will. Those books sat there for a long, long while. Didn't sell a one.

Mike and I reminisced a little on some products RadioShack stocked that seemed to be of little or no use to anyone. That was when I remembered this thing.



On Valentine's Day, Mike and his people received more bad news.


Today we found out what the bonuses would be for employees at liquidating stores. Having had my severance reduced to four weeks back in December, then finding out that I wouldn't get severance since my store was being liquidated, I now learn that I get a bonus for sticking around to the end of the liquidation process. A whopping $120 per liquidation week. In my case, that's two weeks. Full-time employees get $40 per week.

Part-time employees get zilch. There are a lot of part-timers out there. There are a lot of very, very good part-timers out there, and they just hosed.

That was fun news to break to my employees. Two week ago, they had jobs. Yes, they knew that they were in a store slated to be closed, but they were seeing it out, partly because a couple weeks severance would be nice, partly because job-hunting sucks, partly just to see the ship sink, and partly because they respect me and didn't want to leave me in the lurch, running the store solo. They expected the worst after severance at liquidating stores got cancelled last week. They speculated on what the promised store bonus would be.

They guessed $25 Starbucks gift cards. They still gave RadioShack too much credit.


RadioShack continues to disappear. All the company's store properties in New York City have hit the market. A year and a half ago, RadioShack's CEO, as well as two former CEOs, gathered in corporate hometown Fort Worth, Texas, to ceremoniously open a flagship store. Its sign was torn down last weekend.


For more on RadioShack, check out Jon's collection of sad, strange stories from his years as a RadioShack employee.