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Technology passes RadioShack by

Feb. 9, 2015

RadioShack filed for bankruptcy protection last week, and Christopher Mims in The Wall Street Journal takes a look at the company’s history back to 1963, when Charles D. Tandy told The New York Times that Radio Shack (then two words) was well positioned to capitalize on its customers’ increasing leisure time. (The full July 28, 1963, Times article is here.)

Mims attributes the decline of the company to decreasing leisure time since the 1970s, when the company was at its peak—selling Citizens’ Band radios and accessories and components needed for repair. In 1979 the average worker worked 1,687 hours per year, Mims writes, and that figure climbed to 1,868 by 2007.

But I don’t buy the leisure-time argument. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2013 employed adults living in households with no children under 18 engaged in an average of 4.5 hours of leisure activities per day, and even households with children under six enjoyed on average 3.5 hours of leisure activities. That may be down from earlier decades but it still leaves time for hobbies.

The fact is it is simply impractical today to engage in the kind of hobbies—building and repairing electronic equipment—that attracted RadioShack customers in its heyday. As Bill Schweber puts it in the comments section in The Wall Street Journal, today’s smartphone, for example, is packed with ICs and surface-mount components the size of grains of sand. It’s hard for the hobbyist to experiment in that environment. The finest level of granularity available today to the hobbyist is something like a BeagleBoard. The action today is in writing software for open platforms, where RadioShack has little to contribute.

I hope RadioShack can revive and find a niche beyond competing in the retail handset market, but doubling everyone’s leisure time would not be part of the solution.—Rick Nelson

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