When it comes to the business of stocking stuff in rooms with roofs, this has been a nightmare week. Three decades after selling its first personal laptop in 1983, Radio Shack is finally done. The company announced it is filing for bankruptcy just hours after Staples announced its intention to buy the beleaguered Office Depot, which itself merged with OfficeMax. The office-supply chain business is wilting, just as the electronics triumvirate of Circuit City, Radio Shack, and Best Buy has been reduced to one.
The mournful reaction to Radio Shack's demise is steep with empty nostalgia, and unless you're a small business owner, the news that there will soon be a solitary brick-and-mortar brand to fulfill your orders for 20,000 Bic pens and 2,000 manila file-folders will not incite much tender weeping. But the incredible shrinking retail chain story is a part of a greater demise that deserves some measure of grief.
It's not just about the fall of the once mighty paper-pens-and-paper-clips business. It's not just the national vigil for Radio Shack, summarized lovingly in grainy this-whole-store-fits-in-your-pocket memes:
1980-2014 All of this now fits in your pocket! pic.twitter.com/WRyowjbFYL— Cory Papineau (@Iam_Canadian) December 12, 2014
You don't need a long explication to see what's going on here. Walmart brought ruthless efficiency to the business of selling stuff in stores, and Amazon brought more ruthless efficiency to the business of selling stuff anywhere, so that today, to be a retail salesperson or cashier—still the two most common jobs in America—is to compete with the convenience of a laptop and a couch (or, even worse, a smartphone search filling a spare moment of boredom). As Radio Shack's story shows, when companies go to war against price and convenience, they tend to lose—first go the jobs, then goes the company.
Retail employment is not "dead," even in the media's liberal interpretation of the word. Many people love shopping—as an experience—and take more psychic glee from an afternoon out browsing, touching, and bagging merchandise than just about anything in their lives. (And that's okay!) But as Amazon, eBay, Instacart, and the websites of brick-and-mortar stores primp their digital storefronts, price and convenience will triumph, again and again. There is little reason to think that the most important employment engine of the 20th century will continue to pump through the 21st. The future will be cheap, and it will be convenient, but much of it will lose the personal touch of, well, people.