“Radio Shack Sucks” or Why You Might as Well Buy on the Internet

February 25, 2012

For the past decade, so-called brick and mortar stores have been fighting a losing battle against internet sellers. The brick and mortar guys think it’s unfair that internet sellers don’t have their overhead, particularly the cost of sales people and showrooms. Sales taxes, usually not collected by internet sellers, also are an issue.

But the concept of “fair” doesn’t really apply in business. The world is what it is. Businesses thrive by turning whatever reality they face into an advantage.

The brick and mortar sellers don’t understand this. They think they are being aced out by internet sellers on price, and price alone. Granted, Americans are the most cost-conscious consumers in the world. Who else would drive 5 miles to save 3 cents a gallon on gasoline? But consumers will pay more for something if they can get it immediately, if they have a chance to try it on or try it out, or if the salesperson can provide useful information in guiding their purchase.

This last thing almost never happens as the sales people in brick and mortar stores are almost always unhappy, underpaid, and poorly informed. (Most, I think, are working there only until they find a job listing for someone who is really, really good at World of Warcraft). You can get better information from the customer reviews on Amazon than you can get from the average Best Buy ‘sales associate.’

Today, I had an instructive experience at Radio Shack. I’ve been looking for an inexpensive set of headphones for my smart phone. I wasn’t about to lay out $300 for noise-cancelling Bose or Sennheisers but I found plenty of $50-100 headphones on the internet that looked pretty good. However, I found that user reviews commented on things like fit, overall sound quality, and sound leakage (others can be bothered by the noise coming from your headphones), things that are largely subjective. I decided that buying headphones was somewhat like buying shoes or pants; better to try them out in person and get something that fits. So, off to The Shack.

Radio Shack had 5 or 6 headphone models that were in my price range. “Prithee, good sir, might I try this pair?” Sorry, I was informed, but we can’t take them out of the package (one of those goddam plastic blister packs with which Amazon has largely dispensed). “So why should I buy them here?” A pregnant pause followed by, uh, well, that’s our policy.

Fine. I’ll buy them from Amazon.

I don’t have an answer for the quandary in which brick and mortar stores find themselves. Neither, it seems, does Radio Shack.