By Harry McCracken | Monday, August 3, 2009 at 1:03 am
[UPDATE: RadioShack has released a press release about all this, and I still can't tell if it's changing its name or not.]
Funny thing about RadioShack: I’m not sure if I’ve been inside its stores more than a dozen times over the past seven or eight years…and yet I still feel proprietary about it. The company’s TRS-80 microcomputers were what got me interested in technology in the first place. In college, I was a frequent customer of the location on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, the oldest remaining store in the chain. I live about a mile from a RadioShack, and as I think about it, I believe I’ve either worked or lived within a mile of a RadioShack for the majority of my life. Which is nothing exceptional; the company is as omnipresent as any business that doesn’t sell hamburgers, chicken, donuts, or coffee.
Tonight, rumor has it that RadioShack is planning to change its branding to The Shack. I dunno if it’s true–the scuttlebutt that Pizza Hut was going to become The Hut turned out to be overblown–but there’s already a page on RadioShack.com with the slogan “Our friends call us The Shack.” If the 88-year-old electronics retailer is indeed dumping its name, I think it’s a bad idea, and I’m pretty sure I’m not just being resistant to change. After the jump, nine arguments against the new identity.
1. Names people know are better than names they don’t. RadioShack is among the most familiar names in the country–it’s not only not a liability, but one of the company’s greatest assets. Name recognition beats name accuracy every time: Southwest Airlines is a national carrier, GQ stands for Gentleman’s Quarterly but is a monthly, and AT&T hasn’t lost its second T even though it stands for the obsolete “Telegraph.” I’ve always admired the Boston-area chain Newbury Comics for keeping that name even though it’s been primarily a music retailer for most of its history. Then there’s my former employer, PC World, which has been smart enough to keep the “PC” in its name and has outlived all of its principal print competitors.
2. They’re changing it now? I get that radio isn’t exactly a hip concept in 2009, or a word that accurately reflects what RadioShack does. But radio stopped being trendy sixty years ago–which was so early in the history of RadioShack that it was still a small Boston retailer. If having the word radio in the name was a liability, RadioShack would never have become a nationwide retailing phenom in the first place.
3. The Shack is a lousy name. It describes the chain even more poorly than “RadioShack” does. I’m not sure if it has any connotations of any sort, but if it does, I don’t think they’re positive–it sounds kind of…ramshackle. To say it’s kind of blah would be paying it a compliment it probably doesn’t deserve.
4. RadioShack has problems beyond any issues with its name. Lots of them. Its stores are tiny by the standards of the past few decades of American retailing, and therefore can’t compete with the product selection at rivals. (It barely has room to sell HDTVs at all–the TV section at my nearest Costco is larger than my local RadioShack.) When I’ve been inside RadioShacks in recent years, I’m usually surprised by high the prices are. They have a reputation for iffy customer service. If the signage outside the stores changes but the experience inside doesn’t, it’s not going to be any more competitive than it is right now.
5. The stores already changed their name, and it didn’t seem to help. A few years ago, the tried-and-true “Radio Shack” became the slightly-more-modern-sounding “RadioShack,” necessitating lots of pricey new signag.e Did you spend any more time or money at its stores after it lost the space? (Side note: A couple of years ago when I was at PC World, we briefly considered changing the name of the publication to PCWorld, in part because a meaningful percentage of our readers thought the name was spelled that way. I’m proud to say we thought better of the idea.)
6. I’m afraid the 2-for-1 coupon for 8-track tape I’ve been saving won’t be honored at The Shack. It clearly says it’s good only at Radio Shack.
7. The always-useful example of Circuit City. It had a name that was in some ways more archaic-sounding than RadioShack–how much time do you spend thinking about the circuitry inside your gadgets? In recent years, it shrunk the “Circuit” on its signs, and at some locations eliminated it altogether, dubbing itself “The City.” (Sound familiar?) The energy the company devoted to fretting about its moniker didn’t do a thing to help keep it solvent.
8. “The Shack” might get confused with this guy.
9 Name changes just don’t work. Can you give me one example of a troubled business in any field whose health was improved by a new name, ever? Most often, it’s a sign that the company in question has real problems but its unwilling to confront them. It’s more likely to presage death–not that I think RadioShack is going anywhere, whatever its name–than a turnaround.
Side note: I stole some of the images in this post from an amazing site I just discovered called Radio Shack Catalogs. If you’ve ever had any emotional attachment to RadioShack Radio Shack at any point in your life, you’ll find it profoundly evocative of all the things that made the company appealing once upon a time…
[UPDATE: I'm feeling so nostalgic about the name Radio Shack that I assembled a collection of entertaining old TV ads in tribute to the company's rich history.]