Today I was on the bus home and found a link to a Forbes article on how to save Radio Shack and it resounded almost exactly with what I have been thinking and saying about Maplin Electronics for a long time now to anyone who will listen, so I had to write this article…
A micro history of hobbyist electronics retail in the UK
For the uninitiated amongst us Radio Shack is the American equivalent of Maplin Electronics. In 1999 Tandy (a.k.a. Radio Shack) shut down UK operations and sold their locations to what is now Carphone Warehouse, some continued on under the brand T2.
Before the sale of their stores, Tandy/Radio Shack and Maplin were competitors selling various ranges of equipment for home hobbyists in the electrical category. Items such as radios, telephones, audio and visual equipment, PA and DJ equipment, and most uniquely electronic components.
The problem with Maplin
Unfortunately if you look at Maplin today their shops are full to the brim with crap, poor quality, overpriced, junk. The vast majority of this crap in Maplin falls into a few select categories all served by other companies or sectors…
Also served by supermarkets, Argos, Pound Shops and everywhere.
Also served by security specialists, DIY stores and Argos.
Also served by DJ stores.
Currys, Comet, Dixons, PC World, supermarkets, etc..
- Computer Equipment
PC World, Staples, supermarkets and online.
There is one area of Maplin which doesn’t have a UK high street competitor and that is this hobbiest market, while you have stores like Hobbycraft who sell bits and bobs for artistic, craft and hand made consumer needs, there isn’t a equivalent for the homebrew electronics, maker movement out there.
Bruce Upbin’s solution
The main thrust of the aforementioned Forbes article is that Radio Shack should sell up all their tiny corner shop locations and invest in staff and refitting existing larger stores to become what is known in America as a TechShop, or in other words a hacker/maker space. For me the idea of converting these places into this kind of gym for makers is not ideal as it requires people to subscribe and come along. For me I have a different take on the same principal for Maplin.
The new Maplin
My vision for Maplin, should they choose to accept it:
The brand identity of Maplin today is misleading, boring, tame, and uninspiring. The meaning of the brand is even worse. This needs to change, and I wouldn’t rule out a name change, however as I am bad enough at remembering names, let alone coming up with new ones I will stick with name as is, Maplin Electronics (focusing mainly on Maplin).
The identity of the Maplin brand as I said is misleading, they call themselves “The electronics specialist” but sell nothing specialist, or special. If you take a look at other brands who get this right in this area such as Sparkfun Electronics a true electronics specialist in America, or the Arduino project you can see they have equally clean designs but convey meaning through their branding.
The name ‘Sparkfun’ is exciting and conjures up ideas of playing with electronics and tinkering. The ‘Arduino’ name is a little more obscure but the colour and imagery are highly communicative, the colour speaks of PCBs and the icon is of electronic signs and looks perhaps like an abstract of a the top of a PP3 9V battery or something similar.
I think the rebranding of Maplin needs to be major, the choice of colour is a strange and unfortunate one, perhaps this is more my opinion at this point however it only cheapens the brand, while the rich and vibrant colours in these other brands really adds a punch and makes them memorable. Then the simple nature reinforced with a small icon really pull it together.
Another key issue with Maplin is that it doesn’t stand for anything, no one knows what Maplin actually sells, why they do what they do and what they aim to achieve. I can hear some of you screaming PROFIT! and you are right, they are clearly a faceless money making machine, but in todays day and age that simply isn’t enough, and this is especially true when you look at the bizzar range of crap that they sell at present, no one would care if Maplin closed its doors tomorrow and forever.
Maplin as a company needs to grow a culture, passion, a vision, a set of beliefs. If they could adopt a hacker/maker friendly open source ethos that supports this community and helps to educate and grow the community I think Maplin might get somewhere. Looking at their corporate website and reading their history, and similarly reading their history on wikipedia you get a sense that this ethos is where it all started and this would really be returning to its roots rather than changing the habit of a life time. It seems that somewhere in the 70s and 80s they began to loose their way and in the preceding two decades it all but disappeared.
There is little to no point in rebranding if you don’t refocus what the company does otherwise this is just another lie to the consumer. This aspect of my vision is the most radical for Maplin and I must admit not being a business expert I couldn’t tell you if it would work, however other companies do this so I guess it’s possible.
Maplin need to drop the crap, and I mean all of it. Leave cheap Chinese imported tablets, CCTV cameras, computer accessories and DJ equipment to eBay where it belongs. Instead they need to focus on having a quality, and broad range of components on par with RS, Farnell or Rapid but on the high street, online and with business. This may mean partnering with these companies, merging with or buying one.
The new range would be presented in store as loose components organised in a roller shelving system full of parts bins stored in parts bins labeled, barcoded and indexed on a computer system that can recall the location and price of parts. This means not only can more items be kept in store but customers can literally pick up the item and test fit in their projects before taking it to the checkout where they can buy what they have to hand or order a larger number for bigger projects to be delivered to home or store.
In addition to offering small electronics parts, casings and tools the stores would also offer a range fabrication services in-store. This could include 3D printing, laser cutting, and PCB milling.
I believe Maplin stores need to be at the heart of a community, a community that extends to local schools, hacker/maker spaces, and hobbyist clubs. This community is formed in the way the store is laid out and the facilities and events it offers. The first major difference as previously alluded to will be the product range offered in-store.
Traditionally Maplin stores have had a large proportion of their store filled with low height shelving that displays products on hooks and in set places, larger stores have a small sliding shelving system or counter at the back tucked out the way with various small components bagged in ziplock bags stapled over with a cardboard hanging hook showing the Maplin brand and a barcode with the item number. This packaging is a waste as it prevents the customer from holding the item and testing it, and it just gets thrown away eventually.
New Maplin stores would have a large open parts area with a rolling rack system that contains hundreds of labeled parts bins showing the item, price and a tracking barcode. Items in these bins are held loose and can be hand picked by customers to allow them the freedom to test fit, with their project in hand. Navigation of this large library will be through multiple processes.
- Selecting isle, then looking down the isle (like a supermarket).
All stores will locate components in the same order but may have smaller or larger ranges.
- Mobile app
A store app will allow you to browse the stores product catalogue, select items and get a picking list of the exact address of the desired components or send it to the store staff for later collection.
Just as the store app allows you to browse the store catalogue you will be able to select the items for staff picking, or print a list at home to take to store.
- Catalogue Terminal
Much like the Argos experience, there will be a number of customer product catalogue terminals for customers to do quick on the spot look ups, this will then provide the location or offer to print a compact picking list for the customer.
To aid in picking parts customers will be provided with ziplock bags and a small shopping basket that can be mated into the shelving system allowing them to rest it at a comfortable heigh without bending over or holding it all the time. Each bin will also have a sticker dispenser to allow customers to identify parts in their ziplock bags, and to allow for customers who don’t have a picking list and are simply browsing.
Another area of the store will be setup with a wide range of tools and available in packs for the beginner. Tools in this area would be offered at multiple price brackets to allow for beginners and professionals. Smaller hand tools and such like would be hung on pegs however more expensive test equipment like multimeters and such like would be secured on a counter where the customer can try them out, with a demo circuit for probing, meters might have probing points for a voltage, currant, frequency and resistance reference. Scopes may have basic function generator probing points to demo their features, other tools would hopefully have equally useful demo circuits.
A new area to the store would be the workshop which is an area where customers can come and learn, the workshops would be a mix of free drop in workshops designed to be taster sessions for the paid for workshops that teach all manner of subjects ranging from weekly lessons in electronics that build up knowledge in a curriculum over a period, to one off introductory classes. The workshop space is laid out much like a class room with a lectern and screen/white board and student workbenches where they can work independently. The workbenches would be kitted with all the standard electronics tools and can be moved around and reconfigured for round table teaching, and moved aside to allow local clubs to book the space for meetings and such like.
The final part of the store is the fab, a space where specially trained staff are able to help customers develop their projects by offering a fabrication service. The machines here are staff operated, and include:
- Basic woodworking – Paid by the hour (pro-rata)
- 3D printing
- Laser cutting
- PCB milling
- PCB pooling service
The Fab, Workshop, Part Bins, and Tools are the four key zones to the store, fitted in a raw industrial style with an open airy feel. The staff focus on creating a community around the store by helping customers and referring them to other staff and resources where needed.
In order to open the store community to a wider audience there would be an online resources too. These would include a blog looking at customer projects and events happening on a larger scale than single stores, online forum for customers to chat and share ideas and ask questions, several regular YouTube videos/podcasts by different HQ staff on the latest products, follow along projects with kits in store, weekend projects, and learning/tutorial videos.
The final part of the puzzle are kits which is again nothing new to Maplin, in their past they made kits of their own, and they sell kits now but they are a stagnate range that has no progression or consistency. I imagine a range of kits that support the in-store and online curriculums but are not dependent on them, they act as value added for the paid for workshops, sales opportunities for the free workshops and videos, and standalone products in their own right.
Stores will market themselves locally with a small budget held by the manager to invest in local events, and clubs, this might be a robotics team, radio club, hacker/maker spaces, etc… Stores will be able to sponsor these types of events or buy into them to have a stall or such like. Similarly on a company level larger events like Maker Faires and radio ralleys will be sponsored and the company will also push the technology education agenda with the government to increase participation and improve teaching of technology and DIY skills in schools.
To coincide with the new stores, staff would need to have extensive retraining to allow them to offer advice and information that can help customers. Some staff would become specialists in running the curriculum, others in the fabrication area and general staff helping with sales.
My vision for Maplin is radical and probably/unfortunately not something they are likely to adopt. A few years ago Maplin was bought by some investers hoping to turn a profit by growing the business and floating it on the stock exchange. Clearly this hasn’t happened and I can’t help but think that their current strategy, if it is actually a strategy is broken, they are just trying to sell crap products no one really needs for a high price then put them on special offers to sell them.
In the UK, like many countries the maker, DIY, hacker culture is growing in part as a reaction to the sealed black box nature of todays products, and partially because of the growing prevalence of tools available to tinker. I for one would love to see a company as large as Maplin invest and engage with this culture and I think there are big rewards to be had in return.
Maplin, if you are listening, please don’t cherry pick my ideas, give me a job and let me work with you to see if this crazy vision can be a profitable one?