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Quartz Weekend Brief—RadioShack’s demise, banking for the poor, Kremlinology redux, the internet of ants

Good morning, Quartz readers!

I’ve written about a lot of corporate downfalls, the threats to brand relevance, and the effects of bad decisions made at the board level. None of it has pained me the way RadioShack’s story has.

I covered the retailer for a newspaper in Fort Worth, Texas, where RadioShack is headquartered. This was about a dozen years ago, when RadioShack was a big local employer and a ubiquitous sponsor of area nonprofits and cultural events. It is neither of those things now—just as it is no longer anywhere near the forefront of innovation in the consumer electronics business.

Back in 2003, RadioShack knew that its thousands of tiny stores were ill-equipped to handle the new craze for big-screen TVs. That was Best Buy’s business. So RadioShack smartly focused on batteries, cords, and (pre-smartphone) mobile handsets. The margins were awesome.

But then a slow-motion train wreck began. The initial hint for me was when I bought my first iPod. With Best Buy sold out, I found one, click-wheel and all, deep in the housewares section of a mediocre department store at a dying mall. RadioShack didn’t even have a distribution deal with Apple then; that wouldn’t come until mid-2005.

Another big hint came in 2006, when I broke a story about falsehoods on the CEO’s resume. The board dismissed my investigation (pdf) out of hand and publicly backed the CEO, then fired him a week later. The board demonstrated it lacked either the talent or the engagement (perhaps both) to handle a crisis—and there would be bigger crises to come, each leading to terrible decisions about management, strategy, or financial structure.

Between the resurgence of “maker” culture and the enthusiasm of its most recent CEO, RadioShack should have survived—even thrived. But after so many missteps in what became a lost decade, its last gasp was too little, too late.—Heather Landy

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

Cheap can be chic, though also illegal. China is renowned for producing copies of just about everything, so one photographer in a small interior city held a fashion show where every item of clothing was counterfeit and cost no more than $9. Lily Kuo showcases the rather beautiful photos that resulted.

Can nothing dethrone American football? It’s beset with domestic-violence scandals and growing evidence that the game causes brain damage. John McDuling analyzes the cultural and business reasons why all that goes out the window on Super Bowl night, and whether anything might yet weaken its status as America’s favorite sport.

Argentina’s incredibly complex scandal. A prosecutor who was getting ready to accuse the president of attempting to protect those connected to a 1994 bombing was found dead in his apartment. Suicide? Homicide? Tim Fernholz runs through the convoluted storyline, which still doesn’t have an ending.

A new approach to bringing banking to the poor. Before you bring loans and bank accounts to the poorest communities, you need to provide something more basic—platforms, rather than financial products. Leo Mirani looks at two services that aid in enabling cheap transfers and establishing creditworthiness.

The alphabet of the internet. Jason Gilbert wrote a poem that takes the letter learning your small ones are doing in school and applies a digital twist that will make millennials snicker and cause web addicts to develop feelings of spite. The rhymes are real—the LOLs may not be—but that’s for you to decide.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

What Greece’s precarious position has to do with the Franco-Prussian war. In an illuminating history lesson, economist Michael Pettis debunks the notion that the euro’s problems are all the fault of profligate peripheral economies. Instead, it is, like many before it, a conflict of “the interests of workers and small producers against the interests of bankers” that, left unresolved, threatens the European experiment.

Is the world tilting Westwards again? Chinese consumers are still talked of as the driver of global economic growth. Time to rethink that assumption, suggests Robin Mellery-Pratt in Business of Fashion. At least for clothing and luxuries, as China slows, America is once again the market brands are looking to.

The return of Kremlinology. Is Vladimir Putin “bad, sad, or mad?” After 15 years of his rule we still don’t really know, writes veteran Russia-watcher Edward Lucas for the Center for European Policy Analysis, who offers a roundup of some competing attempts to analyze the Russian leader and predict his next move.

The terrible fate of the web. In a new twist on the old “the web is dead” argument, the Awl’s John Herrman predicts that soon almost everything you see online will live on a handful of massive platforms like Facebook, making the internet much like the TV industry and ending its brief flowering as a meritocracy for all.

How ants are like the internet. You’ll learn about both insect society and internet architecture in Rosie Cima’s fascinating piece for Priceonomics, which explains how ants and computer servers use similar methods for sharing information in a decentralized network, as well as several other surprising parallels between biology and computation.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, Putin adjectives, and ant protocols to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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