Why ... hello there, old friends.
Today we're going to talk about the 2002 RadioShack product catalog. I spent nearly four years working there, and untold hours staring at this catalog. Back then, I took it all for granted. But with the benefit of hindsight ... well, looking through it again is quite a trip.
Over the 10 years that have passed since this catalog was printed, a whole lot has happened to this company, as well as the consumer electronics industry at large. Back then, RadioShack was struggling to compete with the industry giants, Circuit City and Best Buy. Now, Circuit City is dead and Best Buy is seeing dangerous revenue losses. Radio Shack, having closed up a bunch of their stores and renovated the rest, is still hanging in there.
Not that we didn't sell all kinds of weird, stupid shit along the way. Please join me as I cackle at these things with the unfair benefit of hindsight.
Before we go any further, I have to explain this weird-looking barcode thing to you, because it's perfectly emblematic of RadioShack -- weird, ambitious, and ultimately completely stupid and doomed. This is a CueCat barcode, of which there are hundreds printed in this catalog:
Here is what a CueCat looked like:
Basically, it was this handheld grocery scanner-esque device that you plugged into your computer. The idea was that you would be sitting at your computer and flipping through a magazine, and if you saw something interesting in the magazine, you would scan the CueCat barcode and your Web browser would direct to that product's website.
Yep. Sitting in front of your computer to read something other than your computer screen, for the sake of the off-chance that:
- you see a neato ad
- you don't mind doing advertisers' work for them
- the ad is one of the 0.001% of magazine ads that actually has a CueCat barcode printed on it
- you recoil in horror at the thought of spending like eight seconds to look up a product's website, but are generally OK with spending like four seconds
Yep. That was RadioShack's idea of a fun party. And man, did they sell out for it. The company spilled $30 million into the project and slapped CueCat barcodes all over its catalogs. This whole project, of course, turned out to be a categorical failure. At my store, we had a drawer full of roughly 50 CueCats that we couldn't give away. Literally. Like, we had a display that said "please take one" and people would not take them.
I'll cop to remaining sort of a RadioShack homer after all these years. I genuinely embrace that company for how odd and shitty it was and is. But I don't think the CueCat is merely a poor reflection on 2002. I just think that everyone was an idiot in 2002.
This guy is livin' the dream. Between the ages of ... I don't know, 14 and 20, this was the exact setup I was determined to have one day. Just sittin' around outside a coffee shop in the business district, m'man. On the laptop, m'man, talkin' on the celly, m'man. Just multitasking, you dig? Just Compaq'in' m'balls off, just makin' things happen, just a little o' this, a little o' that, m'man. Things are happenin', m'man. Things are happenin'.
And eventually, I became this guy. It's not so great. It's humid, bees are everywhere, and the glare makes the laptop's screen unreadable. But the first day I did this was the day I decided I had made it. It was important.
"dickheads in the sky" pogs, collect all six
I wish I had some juicy stories to tell you about people returning these to the store and leaving eight seconds of pissy monologue recorded on them. I don't, because nobody ever ever bought these, because WHY WOULD YOU WANT ONE OF THESE? "Hello, spam caller who is almost definitely a recording. I am also a recording! Ha! If that ain't Asimovian, I don't know what is! Well, good to hear from you, buddy. Keep on cracklin'."
"Hehhhhh. Just slouchin' in m'jammies, conductin' a teleconference, watchin th'big game." (Immediately after typing that I realized that I totally bogarted it from Bill's most recent Skymall catalog review, which you should definitely check out.)
Dude, you keep a multi-line business phone on your living room end table? This is what we call "trying too hard." It's like walking through Target with an attaché case or something.
"THERMAL FAX PAPER?!?!?!? HOLY SHIT!!!!!!!!" [frantically reaches for CueCat, scans, is directed to website that reads, "HELLO YOU ARE THE WORLD'S SADDEST MAN OR WOMAN. CLICK HERE TO PLAY MACARENA.mid"]
"Can be programmed to dial up your local police, fire department and other emergency contacts ..."
"Fire department," huh? Fact! The number you call when there is a fire is still just 911. I guess the "fire department" quick-dial button would come in handy if you just came up with the world's greatest joke about fires and really want to tell it to someone who would truly appreciate it.
I made this image especially large because I wanted to make sure that you read this. I want you to make sure that you understand something: I did not Photoshop this. This was an actual product that RadioShack sold, and this copy is taken straight from the catalog. Receive the grim results from your biopsy in the perviest possible manner! Own the only corded telephone that has ever needed batteries FOR NINETY DOLLARS
This thing was actually pretty neat. Keep in mind that it was the year 2002, and a thing with a keyboard and screen that weighed fewer than 10 pounds was considered pretty cutting-edge. See, look! This girl can email her pal about how much she digs her Misfits CD! (I zoomed in. That is a Misfits CD.)
This cost $10 less than the Marilyn Monroe phone.
Ahhhhhhhhhhh ... sorry, everybody. We're getting to the part of the catalog that's getting me all emotional.
This is the Nokia 5185. You very well may have had one. It made phone calls, it played Snake, and it was INDESTRUCTIBLE. Trust me on this. Cell phones made in the early Aughts were profoundly unreliable, and I saw tons of phones I sold returned to the store, but of all the Nokia 5185s I sold, not a single one was brought back.
In the year 2030 there's going to be a "man has Volkswagen with 1.5 million miles" story about some old dude who still has one that works. In 2006 it took a bullet for him, and in 2017 he was stranded in the wilderness and sharpened the antenna to hunt snakes, which he got really good at because he played a lot of Snake. Book it.
It looks like he's either sparring with the world's worst sparring gloves, or the weightlifting victim of a poor PhotoShop job. More importantly, he's talking on the phone while he's doing whatever he's doing.
I think there was this small window in 21st-century history in which it really looked like it would become socially acceptable to wear a cell phone headset in nearly every social setting -- walking through the mall, in line at the coffee shop, or during your killer ab sesh at the Gold's Gym. Based on my experience as someone who a) sold hundreds of these, and b) spent hundreds of bored hours leaning against the counter and watching people walk through the mall, I think this period fell between October 2002 and ... let's say March 2005, roughly.
It crosses the threshold of merely being an issue of fashion. It's an issue of broadcasting the message, "at any point during our conversation, I may abruptly begin speaking to someone who is not in the room, and if this confuses you, I'll shoot an annoyed look at you." If the 1990s were all about getting all kinds of cool new technological goodies, the 2000s were about learning to use them without behaving like a total donkey. Like that fellow up there.
Ohhhh man. We sold a lot of these. Sometimes the people who bought them poorly disguised the fact that they were buying them in order to bust their cheating spouses, and sometimes they just came out and said it.
I worked at RadioShack between the ages of 19 and 22. In other words, the age range during which we're all busy deciding which of the things we've been taught are worth holding onto, and which are total horsepucky. Marriage is a big one. I was very lucky growing up. My parents were two amazing people who did, and still do, deeply love one another.
Most kids don't have that. Isn't that a weird thing to acknowledge? It's a cultural institution, and if you consider divorces along with unhappy marriages, it's clear that it doesn't work for a strong majority of people. Most human beings simply aren't built for it. I started to get clued in on this as a kid, when I slept over at friends' houses and was kept awake by their parents screaming at each other.
But the more I sold good ol' 17-855, and the more I talked with those who bought them, the clearer this lesson became. They were young, old, husbands, wives, dressed for a dinner party, or wearing a neon WLRS-Fest tee. Everyone. That stuck with me. It still does.
Also, I bought one with my employee discount so I could prank other RadioShacks and post the recordings online. Man. 2003 Progressive Boink really was great.
This phone worked how 90 percent of people thought cell phones worked in 2002: via satellite. It's the most Jack Bauer thing RadioShack ever sold, and to this day, I wish I had one. Nevermind that I spend almost my entire life within the range of a cell phone tower (which I refer to as either Father or Cool Step-Dad, depending on whether I can get data). I want one because the brilliant glow of me wanting one 10 years ago has not faded. I don't care about how uncool I look. I'll haul it around in a Wal-Mart bag full of cargo shorts with Faded Glory tags hanging out the top. I don't give a shit. Make fun of me if you want. I HAVE COLIN POWELL ON SPEED-DIAL. IT COMES WITH THAT.
This is how BALCO was busted. Their dealer code was decent, but you can't go using your client's real name like that.
There was one customer who was known by just about every RadioShack employee in Louisville circa 2003. He was probably around 30 years old, and he had a slight learning disability. We all knew him because once every month or two, he would pop in the store and buy one of our ham radios. I didn't really know why, because they cost upwards of $100, and after a while it became clear to me that he was purchasing models he had already purchased.
He loved those ham radios, though. He taught me how they worked. He showed me how to program all the little frequencies in the radio, and which bands were used for what, and all this stuff. Such a nice guy.
One day, district management faxed a note to every store in town, instructing us not to sell him any more radios. Apparently, he was from a very well-to-do family, and his dad went into his bedroom one day and saw upwards of 100 ham radios, many of which were the exact same model. No more ham radios, he declared.
A couple weeks later, he walked in and asked to purchase another ham radio, this time with more timidity in his voice. I was required to tell him, "no." He gave me this look, as though I was betraying him, which I was. I never saw him again.
Sorry. I'll try to tell a more fun story on the next page.
When I was 19, I took some cash from my friends and used my employee discount to buy them CB radios for their cars. It was all part of our grand experiment: Cops and Robbers.
One of us was the robber. His goal was to drive around a section of Louisville -- usually the East End, since there were fewer stoplights and the speed limits were higher -- and evade "capture." The rest of us were cops, and we used our CB radios to coordinate our search efforts. One catch: the robber was allowed to listen in via his radio.
If we spotted him, we flashed our brights at him, and he had to stop. We then were allowed exactly two minutes to search his car for "contraband," which was represented in the form of a candy bar. If we found it, we won, and the game started anew. If we didn't, we had to let him go on his way and give him a 5-minute head start.
I hope I'm doing this game justice, because it was unbelievably awesome. One time, the robber ditched his car and ran away with the contraband, and I had to go chase him through the woods. Another time, a couple of truckers tuned in to our channel, and we explained to them what we were doing. "Damn," said one of them, "wish I could play."
We kind of stopped playing after an actual real-life cop pulled one of us over for speeding. He told us we shouldn't play Cops and Robbers anymore, but did acknowledge that it was an awesome idea for a game.
Whew! All right, we're through the first 100 pages of this thing. I gotta take a break, but I'll be back with Part 2 in the future. Thanks for joining me.