For the last week and a half or so, every couple of nights I’ve had the same dream over and over again. I’m at work. The big blowout sale is done. There’s still plenty of product on the walls, but it does look picked over. At my manager’s word the giant red and yellow signs in the windows come down and business is poised to go back to normal. There’s rebuilding to be done, staff to hire, and hopefully corporate will do something about the fact that we’re low on things to sell, but we made it.
Of course, that’s not what happened at all. Two weeks ago now my workplace for almost three years, Pittsburg’s RadioShack store, shut its doors for the last time. The last time I was there all the product was gone, the register computers had been disassembled and boxed up, the counters had been shoved into a corner, and a pickup truck was tearing out of the side parking lot with one of our discarded Verizon cell phone displays. About a week ago the building’s owner put “FOR LEASE” signs in the windows, making the situation all the more real. Six and a quarter years working for this company were finally at an end.
By now you’re probably aware of what happened here. RadioShack has been a floundering company for years, fundamentally without direction and wounded from having to compete with on-line retailers who would sell the sorts of cables RadioShack had been selling for fifteen to twenty bucks for a mere three bucks plus free shipping from Hong Kong. For several years they’d pinned most of their hopes, and the hopes of their sales associates, on cell phone sales, but those had dropped off sharply for reasons I’ll get into later. Lately they’d been converting lower-performing locations into clearance and “hub” stores; other stores in the district would ship all their discontinued and clearance product to those stores and it would all be sold for an extra twenty-five percent off. In turn, those “hub” stores would ship their low margin, brand name product out to better-performing stores. If that wasn’t a sign that both those newly rechristened locations and the company itself were in dire straits, I don’t know what would have been. About a week or two before the corporation filed for bankruptcy our store had been turned into one of those “hubs.” Out went the Beats By Dre. Gone was anything with Apple’s name on it. Sayonara, Samsung cell phones — yes, even the cheap no-contract flip phones. I opined on Twitter at the time that it felt like the company was asking me to dig my own grave.
The store closure wound up being a final lap of indignities that had been inflicted on me and my coworkers. My manager found out that the store was closing when FedEx dropped off the “STORE CLOSING” signs the morning after RadioShack announced that they were filing for bankruptcy. The first date provided for our closing was given on a conference call and was “the end of March.” About a week later we discovered that the store was closing at the end of February; that date was found buried in a liquidation percentage-off spreadsheet. Due to higher than anticipated sales of our deeply discounted merchandise, that date got moved even further back and the sale prices got lowered even further to, I guess, get us and the leftovers out of there faster. Our last day open for business was February 22. That morning we told the amassed hordes looking for deals that they could take a small RadioShack-branded plastic bag, load it up with whatever, and that whole bag of merchandise would be five bucks plus tax. Someone bought our entire remaining stock of cordless phone batteries and button cells for five bucks that way. The number of people swarming about searching for deals actually set off my anxiety a bit, though I expect that the fact that the end was nigh was also affecting me somewhat.
Let’s take a quick trip back to the beginning of my journey with this corporation. RadioShack was the first non-temporary, non job agency-affiliated company that called me back following my move up to Wisconsin. The RadioShack I’d applied to work for was at the mall, fifteen minutes from the apartment I was sharing with my pal Evan by foot. As I would later find out, the store manager there had abruptly quit and it was ostensibly managed by the guy who ran the store across town, though given the circumstances the three associates who remained there were effectively running the place. I had my interview at the manager’s home store on Halloween of 2008 and was pretty much hired on the spot, though when I heard nothing back for a couple of weeks I discovered that I’d been hired at the exact point where RadioShack was doing away with paper applications and moving everything on-line, so I had to sit down and fill everything out all over again. My first week on the job was the week of Black Friday. Without a full-time manager and with the store effectively understaffed without me on the floor, my training was done in short bursts, on the fly, and didn’t go particularly well. My first cell phone sale ended with the customer signed up in Sprint’s activation system but not rung out through the store point-of-sale system; the longest-serving associate had to call them back to get that sorted out and I was banished to the back room to complete my training modules. In my defense I don’t think I’d actually done my wireless training at all yet and the other associate I was working with, who did know what he was doing, was trying to help a gentleman with his malfunctioning laptop and really didn’t seem to care that I was floundering there.
That unhelpful associate did offer one truth to me that stuck with me all the way through my RadioShack journey. He once complained that despite the pittance we were paid, the federal minimum wage plus a paltry commission, we were expected — by the customers, if not by the corporation — to know everything there was to know about everything in the store. That included resistors, capacitors, diodes, switches, TV antennas, CB radios, police scanners, computers, Dish satellite TV service, Sirius XM satellite radios, iPods, cell phones, cell phone boosters, home telephones, RC cars, home security setups, and more. Training on most of this was negligible, limited to short slide presentations with incredibly easy multiple choice quizzes that had no hope of sticking. The only thing I ever properly learned a whole lot about in the time I worked for the company was the cell phone business; otherwise, I got by on my own long-standing knowledge of A/V setups, Macintosh computers (because nobody else in any of the stores I worked at ever seemed to know about Macs and I’ve been using them almost exclusively since about 1996), and a mix of common sense and the same sort of verbal sleight of hand that got Tailgate through that bomb disposal crisis in that one issue of More Than Meets The Eye (that is, playing the expert while letting the other person actually walk you through the situation without letting them know they’re in the lead).
My first permanent manager was brought in during my first January with the company. Let’s call her Sara. (Not her real name, of course; I’m in no mood to cause someone grief if this all winds up being Googled, cross-referenced, and used against anyone.) She was an ace salesperson who, up to that point, was bringing in some of the highest paychecks in the district due to her cell phone sales. Poor Sara turned out to be a disaster of a manager. This is something I saw a lot of over the next few years: outstanding salespeople promoted and turned into crummy managers. Over and over again I would see someone with brilliant sales numbers move on up to take over a store and suddenly transform into a nervous wreck of a human being. They would have some kind of meltdown, or they’d get caught scamming the company, and then they’d be out the door. In Sara’s case, I think the problem was that within about a month or so of being made a manager, as a senior manager who’d been with the company since 1980-something was trying to help her get her business together, she got a phone call from the Regional Sales Director where he screamed at her for about a half hour straight about how lousy the store was doing. She’d barely had a chance to change the course of the store after it had been neglected for a quarter or so, and already her boss’s boss was treating her like a failure. She cried and cried, and called me and let me know that she just didn’t care anymore. I’m a little surprised that she lasted as long as she did, especially after the panic attack and the month off for medical leave due to said panic attack. Sara was let go in the early evening hours of September 11, 2009.
Managers typically left one of three ways. They would be transferred to another location, they would get sick of the pressure and constant state of crisis and give their two weeks’ notice, or they would be fired. Sara’s successor, who was actually quite good at her job, would leave via a combination of the first two; the district manager lied to her face about a matter both personal and professional, so she demanded a transfer back to her old store and a demotion back to a sales position there. The joke was on her, though: shortly after she returned to her original store the manager there — let’s call him Ellis, though again, not his real name — was fired and she was given his job.
(Our so-called Ellis, by the way, had driven off his store’s previous manager, was known to give preferential treatment to attractive ladies, was suspected of stealing a felony-level amount of product from the store, and had sold a man a laptop that he’d personally used to enjoy pornography. That last one I heard from the associate who had to handle the return; the laptop was intended for the customer’s daughter’s birthday, as I recall. Also, Ellis once threw some Skittles at me in our store’s backroom. After his firing, the story goes, he skipped town with his rental car and went on the lam. It’s a shame I don’t quite remember his real name, because I’m morbidly curious what became of him.)
In all, I wound up having ten different managers in six years. At the mall alone, where I worked for the first three years with the company, I went through six of them, two of which were fired and a third of which was threatened with it at one point. The second person fired was a fellow we’ll call Ricky, a slick character who’d been with the company for a number of years and had gotten himself transferred into our store during a manager shuffle. The crazy thing about him was that he was burning his candle at more than the usual number of ends by trying to go to school, serve as some sort of volunteer lawman during nights, and manage the store during the day. He would disappear for long stretches, sometimes to the restaurant and bar that his fiancee worked at. Ricky was only managing to accomplish all this because he was being protected by the district manager. Then, during a district and regional-level shake-up, we wound up with a new district manager. Soon I was fielding phone calls from the new district manager looking for Ricky. That DM came to know my voice and my typical response, “I really don’t know where he is,” very well. After this had gone on for months, one day I came into work and found a stranger standing behind the store counter next to Ricky. Guess who that was. Later, after coming back from my lunch, I saw Ricky, dressed in his fine suit, walk out of the back room with most of his things. He shook my hand, thanked me for everything, and left. He was gone, about a year and two weeks after Sara had gone. The district manager put me in the hot seat for, like, a month while they looked for a replacement. I hated every minute of it. We were understaffed thanks to Ricky showing favor to a friend; his pal was part-time, so ol’ Ricky didn’t hire a second part-timer so his friend would get all the remaining hours. And wouldn’t you know it, it was during that month that the kid had some sort of meltdown and demanded some time off in one of the strangest, scariest voices I’ve ever heard come out of someone under fifty. That demand came with a threat I honestly couldn’t have lived with had he gone through with it. Not only wasn’t I trained for this, I wasn’t really emotionally equipped for it either.
I think it says something about the way RadioShack was operating that the manager who took over for me wound up being one of the two best I ever worked for. We’ll use his real name, Chad, because the dude deserves some credit. He and the manager who was in the process of taking over the Pittsburg store when I moved back, Todd, are probably the two best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for. Both of them have one key thing in common: they were both hired from outside the company to be managers first and foremost. I also think it helped that both already had management experience and weren’t trying to learn that job on the fly while also trying to maintain high sales. As I’ve said, I worry that by and large what RadioShack had done with most of the folks I’d worked under previously, as well as several others I was witness to in the surrounding area, was “rewarding” their best salespeople by promoting them without any regard as to whether or not they’d be any good at what is, or at least should be, a fundamentally different kind of job.
We’re going to fast-forward to my time in Pittsburg now, because while I’m sure I could squeeze some more stories out of my time in Wisconsin, the last notable thing that happened up there was the closure of the mall store at the end of 2011, which came down to the mall wanting to move something else into that spot and RadioShack not thinking much of the remaining locations available. It’s worth noting, though, that when I moved back to Kansas the RadioShack there had moved across town from its location in Meadowbrook Mall, where it had stood for something like twenty years, if not longer; I remember my dad buying a copy of Thexder for the PC for me there when it occupied some of the space Maurices takes up now, and that game was released in the United States in 1987. I get the feeling there was a big push by RadioShack to move out of traditional, enclosed malls and into strip malls, which both does and doesn’t make sense to me. If you look at the transformation of malls over the last fifteen to twenty years, you’ll notice that most of the non-clothing stores have vacated the premises: Kay Bee Toys went bankrupt (twice); B. Dalton Booksellers and Waldenbooks were both absorbed by larger chains and went away due to dissolution and bankruptcy, respectively; Musicland also went bankrupt, leading to the end of that chain, Sam Goody, and most of the Suncoast Motion Picture Company stores nationwide. That’s just a handful of stores I remember going into as a kid. Greed, mismanagement, unrestricted growth and bloat, and challenges from the internet have transformed the entire retail landscape, and I guess RadioShack thought they could avoid the curse by running from these dying retail behemoths. However, I don’t think that moving into strip malls otherwise occupied by usurious money lending outfits and cheap pizza joints, generally located a stone’s throw from the World’s Largest Retailer, is any way to stay afloat.
One thing RadioShack used to count on to be profitable was its own suite of house brands. If you’re over forty, you might still have some electronics laying about with the Realistic, Archer, or Optimus brands on them: hell, someone brought an old Optimus portable cassette player into the store during the last week or two we were open while looking for a replacement. During the last three years the company tried to get associates into the practice of pushing the current brands RadioShack owns: Auvio, Enercell, and Gigaware. A lot of that stuff isn’t bad at all; as I’m writing this I’m listening to Pandora on an Auvio Bluetooth speaker that actually sounds pretty terrific. But instead of selling rad house brand electronics most of the pressure on sales associates for most of the last six years was to sell customers on contract cell phones from the providers RadioShack was partnered with. RadioShack has sold Sprint phones and contract service since 1997, and despite this it seemed every week I’d meet someone else who, despite wandering around the store for ten minutes, had no idea we sold cell phones. Bear in mind that to get far in a RadioShack store you have to walk past two or three giant tables displaying a few dozen different models of wireless telephone. During the era I worked for the company we also sold AT&T service and, during my time in Pittsburg, Verizon.
There are several problems with relying on the cell phone biz as your primary business, besides the fact that the majority of customers seemed to have no clue that it was even part of our business. For instance, at the mall back in Wisconsin there was a family that kept coming back to sign up for new service, with five lines, under a series of family members’ names, on whichever of the two contract services that family member hadn’t signed up for yet. Naturally, they kept not being able to pay their bills, and they wound up destroying the credit of all involved, but up front it looked good for the store. It would later be explained to me, though, that on the store’s Profit and Loss report every cancellation within a certain period would haunt the store in the form of a chargeback of several hundred of dollars per line. I assume that lots of stores were allowing nonsense like this to happen, which is why within the last couple of years RadioShack developed their own system for determining a customer’s credit eligibility; bypassing that system would be grounds for disciplinary action.
I’m sure most of you are aware how cell phone contracts work, but for those who don’t, the prevailing model here in the United States for over a decade has been that a customer comes into a store, gets talked into the latest and greatest phone by the sales rep, gets talked into a plan that’s slightly more than they need by the sales rep, and then in exchange for signing a two year contract with that carrier gets to take home that awesome new phone that should cost something like half a grand or more for maybe one or two hundred bucks, plus tax, and plus a $35-40 activation fee on their bill. After that contract is complete, or maybe even within four months of that, they can then come back and get another seven hundred dollar phone for something like a fifth of that in exchange for signing another two year contract. There’s a very regular rhythm to that which, for a lot of customers, worked nicely — unless they happened to break that phone within those two years, but between insurance, our own service plans, compatible no-contract devices, and family members who hadn’t signed a new contract in a few years there was often some sort of fix.
A few years ago, T-Mobile — who RadioShack had dropped like a hot potato during that period in 2011 when it looked like AT&T might be buying them — decided to do away with the two year contract model in favor of a phone financing model. Under the new model, T-Mobile’s plans would be a little bit cheaper, but phones would no longer be sold at a cheap price in exchange for the signing of that contract. Instead, the customer would actually pay the full price of the device spread over, say, twenty-four months. No longer were you signing a contract for the service; now you were signing a lease agreement for the phone. Soon, everyone was getting into this new paradigm: first Verizon, then AT&T, and finally Sprint. However, since this attached the sale of the phone to the customer’s bill, only branded locations could do this at first, and it took an awfully long time for RadioShack to reach agreements with the carriers to set this process up.
In the interim, here at the Pittsburg RadioShack, super-manager and all-around good guy Todd (and I’m not just characterizing him this way because he might read this; he really is that good) made some calculations and determined that, on balance, financing a device with these new plans actually cost more for the customer on a monthly basis than the plans most of them already had. While the carrier stores’ associates were being rewarded for converting contract customers into financing customers, we were only too happy to play the good guys and let our customers know that the traditional two year contract model would be cheaper for them in the long run. RadioShack did eventually dangle incentives over our heads to convert as well, but between malfunctioning equipment and software and wanting to do right by our customers, we still didn’t do a whole lot of conversions.
Irritatingly, I think once the cell phone providers threw the two year contract under the bus, it wounded the market. The phone-as-fashion-accessory crowd and the tech-heads would certainly still come in for their fix, but the only reason most of the folks we’d see came in every two years was to get their cheap or free phone. Without that incentive anymore, we probably wouldn’t see them again until something actually happened to their existing phone. In enticing one market to come in more frequently (in most of these plans, if you pay off half your phone you can give it back to the carrier in exchange for getting a shiny new phone to pay off half of before it, too, will be replaced down the road), the carriers shut another market down almost entirely.
Towards the end, the whole thing would be moot, however, because over the course of the fourth quarter last year we just weren’t getting contract/postpaid phones in stock. It was bad enough that we weren’t getting properly stocked with iPhone 6s, which represented thousands of dollars in missed sales, but first AT&T and then Verizon phones in general stopped showing up in our shipments. In all honesty, though, tying our successes to this model was bad news all around anyway. RadioShack was paying for these several-hundred-dollar devices from the carriers and making slim profits on them in the forms of carrier kick-backs for providing new customers and service to existing customers. Living and dying by such narrow profits that are tied to a whimsical and dangerously fluid market where the rules can change every other month is no way to win. I think RadioShack figured that out in early 2012, when we were told for the first time that the company wanted to move away from the cellular focus we’d had for years now and become “an electronics store that ALSO sells cellular service,” but somehow the focus always seemed to swing back to wireless because nothing else seemed to bring up the sales numbers in quite the same way. The only thing that came close was the emerging tablet market, especially during that 4th quarter 2012 when our location was selling Kindle Fires hand-over-fist. Sadly, most of the inexpensive brands of tablets RadioShack has carried are kind of junk, especially the ones bearing the Digix brand we had that same year. Some of those never even turned on right out of the box.
I’m not entirely sure what I would have done differently if I was in the big seat, but I’ve got some ideas. One was even being considered back in 2012 but fell through during a change in leadership: a greater focus on training all associates in what exactly it is RadioShack sells. Remember what that associate I worked with during my first few months said about customers expecting all RadioShack associates to know about everything in the store? Well, RadioShack was in the process of rolling out various certifications for its associates with a whole host of focuses, including the electronics fundamentals you need to know to parse all the components in that big rack of drawers in the back of every store. I wonder if the reason that was dropped was because that was all knowledge you could use to get a better job than working for RadioShack for federal minimum plus commission. It certainly would have fit nicely into the renewed focus on customer service that carried over into the next regime.
One thought I keep coming back to is that RadioShack probably should have, rather than taking on a branded no-contract cell phone service, instead looked into developing their own branded tablet devices. For extra nostalgia points they could have looked into using the old Tandy name that they sold their computers under, though I’m not sure if they still own that since they sold the leather goods business that the name originally came from to another leather goods company. An affordable, reasonably stable tablet device that isn’t junk, isn’t a Kindle Fire, and would have remained in stock with some regularity would have been a godsend during the last couple of years, whereas the branded cell phone service tended to compare poorly with the other options we sold. For what it’s worth, the RadioShack branded wireless service was a partnership with Cricket Wireless, of all companies. Proving just how bad RadioShack’s luck is, AT&T bought Cricket within a year of its launch and announced that they would be migrating customers over from Cricket’s CDMA technology phones to AT&T-compatible GSM technology phones — meaning if you bought any RadioShack Wireless devices after that acquisition, hopefully you had no intention of using them long-term. Then again, considering most of them were fairly inexpensive and not terribly good, you probably weren’t using them long-term anyway despite any intentions you may have had.
This seems as good a place as any to stop. To sum things up, it was a an all-too interesting, never-boring six years and change, during which I at least got to witness the ascent of the smartphone as the primary cellular device from a prime vantage point, which I guess was kind of cool. The best part, though, was getting to know a lot of great people along the way, folks with whom I bonded over the bad hand we’d let ourselves be dealt, celebrated with during the times when things actually went right for a change, and who I really should be better about keeping in touch with. To the top dozen people I worked with over the years, the ones who kept me relatively sane during the worst of it — Anna, Ali, Jake, Chad, Jana, Larry, Todd, Kirsten, Jason, Kelci, and Brittany — thank you all. It was a pleasure being on the same team, and I hope to whatever higher power’s out there that everything’s coming up aces for you now.
So, what’s up with me now? Well, at the moment I’m posting the worldly possessions of mine that I don’t need on eBay (another wave to come on Tuesday), filling out job applications, and trying to figure out how to fill the remaining hours of the day, mostly with watching anime and reading books and manga. And also I’m still talking about Robotech on the internet, because clearly that’s not going to stop until I’m dead. I’m pondering a major decision on that front right now that I may have talked myself into, but of course it’s entirely dependent on exactly how poor my time management skills are going to be from day to day.
Anyway, here’s hoping someone calls me back about a job before the unemployment benefits run out or I go completely ’round the bend.
As always, more later.