Maplin For Sale

If you are an American Electronics Enthusiast of a Certain Age, you will have misty-eyed reminiscences of the days when every shopping mall had a Radio Shack store. If you are a Brit, the name that will bring similar reminiscences to those Radio Shack ones from your American friends is Maplin. They may be less important to our community than they once would have been so this is a story from the financial pages; it has been announced that the Maplin chain is for sale.

Maplin started life as a small mail-order company supplying electronic parts, grew to become a large mail order company selling electronic parts, and them proceeded to a nationwide chain of stores occupying a similar niche to the one Radio Shack fitted into prior to their demise. They still sell electronic components, multimeters, and tools, but the bulk of their floor space is devoted to the more techy and hobbyist end of mass-market consumer electronics. As the competition from online retailers has intensified  it is reported that the sale may be an attempt to avoid the company going into administration.

It’s fair to say that in our community they have something of a reputation of late for being not the cheapest source of parts, somewhere you go because you need something in a hurry rather than for a bargain. A friend of Hackaday remarked flippantly that the asking price for the company would be eleventy zillion pounds, which may provide some clues as to why custom hasn’t been so brisk. But for a period in the late 1970s through to the 1980s they were the only place for many of us to find  parts, and their iconic catalogues with spaceships on their covers could be bought from the nationwide WH Smith newsagent chain alongside home computers such as the ZX Spectrum. It’s sad to say this, but if they did find themselves on the rocks we’d be sorry to see the name disappear, but we probably wouldn’t miss them in 2018.

One of the things Maplin were known for back in the day were their range of kits. We’ve shown you at least one in the past, this I/O port for a Sinclair ZX81.

Footnote: Does anyone still have any of the early Maplin catalogues with the spaceships on the cover? Ours perished decades ago, but we’d love to borrow one for a Retrotechtacular piece.

Maplin store images: Betty Longbottom [CC BY-SA 2.0], and Futurilla [CC BY-SA 2.0].

78 thoughts on “Maplin For Sale

    1. Nice link! I looked a bit and bumbled into a bit of the album art interspersed around the web site.
      Sometimes, my favorite thing is just going for a good web ramble when a couple of links open the doors.

    2. I always thought the artist should have credited Chris Foss for the style (Google Chriss Foss spaceship). But I guess if you get a commission that says “do it like this” then that’s what you do. LJs other (excellent) work is quite different.

      1. I remember using them in the good old days but stopped using them when they turned into a massively overpriced toy shop.

        I used to love building their own kits and bought their magazines for years (I probably still have loads of their magazines).

        You are spot on about staff being pushy. You used to be able to do in and look all around without being approached but the staff were always on hand for you.

        The last time I went in was probably 5 years ago. I had just reached the end of an isle and was looking at a little keyring DVR like the little 808 you can buy today from ebay for <£3. It was priced at £29.99 and was EXACTLY the same unit as I had recently bought brand new for £3.50 off ebay (albeit directly from China), I felt I had to abruptly tell them that being asked 3 times if I needed help within just over 3 minutes was just one reason I don't go in any more.

        Even trying to avoid eye contact with them doesn't work and maybe they mistook the look of "wow, do people really pay these prices' on my face for a look of needing help in choosing an overpriced piece of tat to buy!

  1. I loved Maplin as a boy growing up in South Africa in the 70’s and 80’s. My favourite magazine was Elektor and ETI the latter had the Maplin ad on the back page. They produced wonderful kits which were well engineered and of course the catalog was better than a John Grisham novel. I was in the UK end of last year and popped into a Maplin store and was a bit disappointed in the hobby electronic side of things. They had a bit of Raspberry Pi stuff and Arduino but at prices beyond my pocket.Sales people were useless but that might be just my ancient perspective . Youth of today and all that.I am not sure what the my business model would be for them today. Go back to being a web based mail order company with fewer smaller branches operating more as depots . Problem is that the skill set of the majority of young people are machine operators and not machine designers. To create sufficient turnover to sustain a bricks and mortar setup , electronic parts are just too cheap.

    1. Elektor was, and is a great publication. It replaced Practical Electronics in my affections – though Wireless World was a very high quality alternative as well. I did have a brief foray into Practical Wireless, but then Elektor arrived with the Formant synth project, and I was hooked.

  2. It was Maplin got me back into electronics. I wanted a microphone preamp and searching the web their kit came up. I thought “I’ve got an old soldering iron somewhere” and have kept going ever since.

    That said, there is very little I would buy from them now except they do a unique strip board which is narrow and has a groove cut through which is perfect for mounting DIP chips and a few components. Maybe I should stock up?

  3. they cant even keep a stock of simple parts.
    last week i wanted
    1 7805 voltage reg 1 555 ic and 1 spst relay. they had none of them in stock. you can buy a rasp pi kit. but just a rap pi on its own. i was told they have discontinued it. you can get a 48w maplin soldering station. But for spare tips. you can forget about it

    1. They haven’t been in the parts business for a long time, they could never support a chain of stores on a series of £1 sales. They moved to toys and gadgets like weather stations and disco lights to increase the transaction value and higher margins. There is a sizeable customer base of people that are not interested in how things work but do like gadgets. The trouble is those people are internet savvy and can find the same products for a fraction of the price on-line.

  4. What I remember fondly about Maplin was the dial up BBS you could order directly from. All text based, enter the codes from the catalog, credit card and your order came in a few days. Felt very science fiction.
    Now, of course, you go into a store and there are three to four members of staff doing nothing and everything you look at is grossly over priced. Then they take turns asking if you need any help.

  5. symptomatic of british management culture. how anyone allows a brand like
    that to fail at this point, simply bowing to pressure from the internet, shows
    what a bunch of imagination-free quitters their current board are.

    (most managers are trained to manage any old crap. they don’t care if it’s
    dairy products or electronics or pringle sweater knockoffs)

  6. alas while maplin used to be great for getting bits and bobs and even kits to build, in recent years they have been very expensive and seemed to suffer from an identity crisis, not knowing if they were an electronics shop or a white goods store, much like Wilco’s are now sat in the Woolworth niche I do hope some other company comes along with a clear vision of what an electronics store is….

    1. Even 25 years ago they were fairly expensive. But now competing with China direct over Ebay, they’ve got no chance. And the stuff they sell, disco lights and whatever else, are all overpriced and made by brands you’ve never heard of. Admittedly I’m not big into the disco light business, or remote controlled cars or whatever else it is they sell, but if I were I wouldn’t pay their prices.

      Shame cos I’ll miss them when they’re gone. But they’re already largely gone. For bare components, they keep only 2 of each type in stock, and practically beg you to accept it mail-order instead. There, it goes from their warehouse somewhere, and you can still pay in cash at the counter, which is nice if you like doing that.

  7. They were once brilliant.
    In the early days you could ask for advice at the counter and talk to someone who new what they were talking about. They attracted employees who wanted to work for the company because they were enthusiasts and new the shop stock inside out.

    The catalogues were great and for any of the ic’s they would have application notes and schematics. You’d end up buying components just because the example given looked interesting.
    I’d buy the catalogue every year for the cover and just to read through as much as to find the components I wanted.

  8. As a brit of that certain age it was Tandy stores I get misty eyed over. They owned Radio Shack and there was one or more Tandy store in every town. Maplins were always out of town things I never got to until the era of online shopping.

    1. Both were great for a budding young electronics hobbyist. We had a Tandy in my home town but the selection of components was somewhat limited. So I used to get on the train to go to Maplin to buy parts from them.

      It is a great shame that a chain of physical electronics shops that caters to hobbyists just isn’t viable today. But that is the way things are going for many sectors not just our hobby.

  9. Here in Australia it was the Dick Smith chain that was known back in the day as the place to go for electronics hobby gear and other quirky stuff. Unfortunatly that chain was ruined by a private equity mob and their dishonest tricks (if what they did isn’t illegal it very well should be IMO). Although many will say that Woolworths Ltd ruined it long before it was even bought by the private equity mob…

  10. Back in the 80s/90s, Maplin used to be the go-to place to get a wide range of electronic components if you wanted it quick (otherwise mail order places like cricklewood were cheaper). You could walk up to the components counter with a list of items and they would look around the shelves and come back with them in a bag. Not like Tandy, where you could only buy resistors in bags of random values. I think Maplin still stock quite a lot, but there’s obviously not enough money in very occasional trade like that to keep these shops open, not with the exorbitant rent and business rates that are being charged these days. The internet has probably killed them off. I’m not sure they really have a well-defined customer base, but maybe they never did (I’d be very interested to know where their main earnings came from, as they seemed to expand the number of shops a lot over the last 20 years). Maybe they could survive on some kind of ‘maker-space’ model, or some other kind of activity/educational idea, but I think they are probably dead, sadly.

  11. It’s a shame, but I’m not at all surprised.
    I recently made a handful of click-and-collect orders of components.
    Although stock was reported, when ordering 16 items (two of each of eight items) only “3” were available. But the two resisters given to me where the wrong value and they were pushing an electrolytic capacitor telling me it is the preset pot I ordered.
    Another branch didn’t make the cap/pot mistake, nor the resistor value mistake, but did “lie” about their stock also.

    If it’s not in stock then why not allow me to order from warehouse for collection in store?

    1. I guess they didn’t lie. Stock control must be very difficult when the staff can’t directly put the item through the till with a barcode, and when the staff don’t know the difference between an electrolytic capacitor and a preset pot.
      I must admit I’ve had a similar experience of being given the wrong component, I wanted some 38kHz remote control IR receivers and they brought out some unknown (possibly IR) LEDs, assuring me that they were what I wanted.
      It’s curious that the general level of electronics knowledge in this country is so low, but I guess it’s no surprise, I’m in my 30s and chose to take electronics for my ‘design and technology’ option at GCSE, prior to that I remember only making a very simple light sensor circuit. So that’s where it would have stopped for the majority of students.

  12. I was actually chatting about this with one of their staff the other day. Apparently someone posted online, that maplin was going under rather than, that maplin was changing hands. Needless to say some interesting response ensued.
    It’s the last shop you can really just walk into, pick up and feel components before you buy them. Beyond pulling them from scrap. I’d hate to see them change too much or go completely.

    1. They will almost certainly go out of business. The amount of debt the company has and liability for all those store leases would just not be sensible for anyone to take on. Any potential buyer will wait for it to go under and then buy the parts of the company that have value such as the brand rights and web store. The shops will all get closed down as there is just no workable model for a national chain of electronics stores.

      1. True. Nobody repairs anything any more (since 30 or 40 years ago), and electronics just isn’t that big a hobby. Now you can get stuff online so much cheaper, their doom is sealed. Shame but it couldn’t really be any other way.

      2. As sad as that may sound, and most likely correct it would be a great opertunity for a person with the capital and vision to setup a maker chain under the brand name and relaunch it.
        Serving coffee and doing maker things in a few stores in the right locations would be something that could potentially make a lot of money.

        Perhaps a line of 3D printers and “while you wait” printing of replacement parts whilst you have a coffee.
        The printing might even be loss leading given how much you pay for coffee.

        3D scanning of objects into various formats.
        CNC maching of parts in aluminium, plywood, so on.

        Jailbreaking things, or installing alternative OS’s on legacy devices.

        No one seems to have commercialised maker spaces yet.
        There is a large segement of the public that wants their stuff fixing but doesn’t want to join a space, or doesn’t have one nearby.

        1. I like the idea of some kind of shop/maker-space/educational combination. Would need somebody with real clout to get behind it though, maybe the Raspberry Pi foundation would be one organisation who could make it work, with some sponsorship?

  13. Maplin went from being where you could actually buy the same kind of thing as RS components, and other random consumer type stuff (like radio shack) to a purveyor of random chinese tat that fall apart after a few uses, and items you can get cheaper from PC World a few hundred meters away. It’s really sad they’re going the same way as Tandy, but unsurprising given the move to buying stuff online.

    1. Tandy had a little bit of everything in the early days, components, audio, computers, telephones, toys and games, etc. The two bug mistakes Tandy made was 1. dropping their own brand products, 2. betting on mobile phones. Tandy never turned into a tech version of toys-r-us like Maplin has. Tandy is now an on-line only component store.

      1. A lot of things changed. In 1971, the average home in North America had some radios, a tv set or two, maybe a stereo. In 1975 there were pocket calculators, home computers, digital clocks, digital watches and it kept getting better. Radio Shack expanded as those things came along, able to sell to the niche market, but not in basement storefront with wooden floor in a distant part of town. So it was also more available to the “general public”. It was less daunting to go in by the person wanting to “just listen” to shortwave radio, or get a metal detector to roam the beach, or get a CB set.

        Since they could sell to the general public, that allowed them to sell the parts and still be profitable. And it got better as new waves of electronic gadgetry arrived, that was more consumer oriented. Radio Shack carried things that were available elsewhere, like an analog synthesizer or a rebadged Casio sampling keyboard, but because they had stores everywhere, made the items more available, especially if you didn’t live in a large city.

        But then “electronics” became mainstream, no longer meaning “technical” but something to consume. Not only did it become everyday, but other stores came along. I remember when the first computer store opened locally, and then chain computer stores took over. Those are mostly gone, there are small computer stores, but they are for a niche. Big chain electronic stores took over, selling “everything” but people expecting lower prices. In North America those chains had bigger stores, though fewer of them. They could carry tv sets, Radio Shack didn’t until recent decades, and even appliances.

        Yes, when Radio Shack stopped with its own brands it lost, though that meant they could drop the catalog. But they stopped being unique because others were selling the same stuff. That Casio sampling keyboard was a big thing when it came out decades ago, but now it would just be an incremental thing. Radio Shack was for a certain time, and the time ran out.

        Michael

  14. Yes I have a maplin catalog from the end of 1982 that I recovered from a skip a few years ago. It’s got the cover that’s the second one in the set of photos in the comments above. There’s a “Maplin News” mini magazine insert in the catalog featuring a “digital-tel” telephone exchange. You can buy “organ components”, “morse keys” and a few microprocessors (and just one microcontroller: the 6802). They make a big deal of having had their new computer (note, singular) installed which will reduce their prices, but I can’t find a single price for any of it.

  15. And the reason they were called Maplins? They started up in Southend on Sea, close to Maplin Sands which was in the early 70s the proposed site of London’s third airport after Heathrow and Gatwick. The first covers of Maplins catalogue had a picture of Concorde taking off. Long, long time ago, that was – when Radio Spares wouldn’t sell to individuals, so there was a choice between ElectroValue in Englefield Green or Henry’s Radio in Edgware Road, London, and then Maplins.

  16. When they put their prices up on resistors from 2p to 35p in the local store in Portsmouth, I did have to have a little sit down to get over the shock. I always used to go there when I was fixing this or that bit of analogue electronics – amps and so on. However when the prices suddenly shoot up, and the stock levels in the stores are so low that I almost never get everything that I need in one trip, it suddenly becomes easier, cheaper and often faster just to order online. I’ve even become quite accustomed to planning my repairs and projects, to benefit from ordering from China or Hong Kong and waiting, these days.

    1. Waiting (or not) may be the key for them? If they went back to their original mail-order model, and were able to sell the stuff China sells but on a next-day basis rather than some Del Boy on Ebay, I’d purchase from them.
      Having said that, I see they have probably folded today.

  17. I felt that way about Baynesville Electronics… they had a great selection, but never adapted to the changing market. They refused to sell microcontrollers, and their web page on par with 1995 designs… they stubbornly stuck to their brick-and-mortar model, and they just couldn’t compete. It’s sad, really.

  18. I remember visiting the first Maplin when I lived in Southend for a while and I still have a catalog or two around. I also used to visit Dick Smiths when in Australia and Mike Quinns surplus in Oakland California. I still have reels of wire from Quinn’s. We just have to accept that buying electronic parts and surplus is online these days and the pleasure of rummaging for parts is replaced by scanning Alibaba or Ebay for something new.

    1. Named after ‘Maplin Way’ in Shoeburyness iirc.

      The tipping point I saw was their HQ move from Hadleigh in Essex, and their new mega-store ‘Mondo’ in Lakeside.
      The Mondo store (later renamed to Maplin), consisted of staff that had trouble counting over 20 – for whenever I would order an item over such number, I always got several less. (I would not always be the one collecting).

      Also, most hobby stuff in either store always seemed to dry up – like it was just a surplus stock shop.
      Shame as some stuff dropped to fantastic prices, so were sorely missed when it shortly vanished from the catalog!

      The common bits were always useful: We built a LOT of computers, and Maplin always had the odd part we needed to get stuff working if we were short. Their thermal paste was our go-to – even with all this fancy Artic Silver, etc., the generic goop was always on par.

      Last time I visited a Maplin, it was just a toy shop-come-Curries.

  19. I won’t be surprised if Maplin as we know it soon disappears, I usually only visit their stores if I’m in a rush and need the part that day. Last week I spent far too much of a Saturday afternoon trying to buy two 4700uF capacitors, their website told me my local store had 2 in stock but I had to drive to 3 others before I found a store who had what I needed in stock. The accuracy of their online availability checker is laughable and the staff are (mostly) absolutely clueless.
    I understand that Maplin’s prices are so hugely over-inflated to cover the cost of the overheads of such a large business but surely they can’t survive in their current state for much longer, not with the much cheaper competition online offering a wider range at much cheaper prices. I will however miss Maplin when it’s gone…

    1. I already miss Maplins as I feel it went years ago. I don’t recognise what is left as Maplins as its like a totally different company just using their name.
      Whenever I need a component, no matter what it is I can guarantee they wont stock it or have one if it is stocked so don’t even try any more.
      For me, nothing is too urgent to justify paying 200% to 500% more just to get it there and then.

      I think I have a better stock than they have as over the years, I have bought kits of different value resistors, caps, LED’s etc. from China so have pretty much 50+ of each component I would ever need and they have cost me very little.

  20. They need to be more like Condrad in Germany. I filled i none of Maplins customer surveys and said this. Conrad has components, kits, gadget, tools own brand and named including soldering stations etc. It is rammed on a weekend and as busy as anywhere is during the week. I don’t see why it can work so well in Germany but and not in the UK.

    1. I’ve ordered from Conrad via the web-site. They seem like a really good supplier. I’d be interested to read other peoples’ experiences of the Conrad shops in Germany. Are they well-stocked? Are the staff knowledegable? If only Conrad would buy Maplin’s!

      1. I was in Warsaw (Poland) many years back and needed some electronic components and a soldering iron. As you do when you’re on a business trip. I went into a Conrad’s store and they had simply everything. Great selection of components, great shop I remember.

      2. yes, Conrad buying Maplins would be a nice thing. I’ve bought online from Conrad in the past and they have been good. I think they are a lot more ‘serious’ about electronics than Maplins. I didn’t know until reading this post that they actually had proper real shops as well. I know its hard to compete with online prices, but I would be willing to pay a little bit extra from a real shop.

      1. does anybody know if they will now be selling existing stock off at bargain prices, or will they just completely shut the doors? (in other words is it worth braving the snow tomorrow?).

  21. In Australia it’s the same story. Dick Smith started selling car radios, moved into components, kits and became very successful. He sold out to the Woolworths chain who opened lots more stores and eventually dropped all components etc. Selling electrical tat wasn’t quite so successful so they offloaded to a private equity group who managed to destroy the whole thing and all shareholder value.

    However – a company called Jaycar was also started out of Dick Smith by one of this original employees which is still going strong with 100 stores in Oz. They sell a wide range of stuff but still sell components, kits, connectors etc. There is also another company Altronics which are smaller but are still going strong and even expanding.

    With the rise of Arduino etc there is a case for a bricks and mortar retailer [I know of one Australian Business who has grown and grown in that market] but only for a small number of stores and certainly not in High St locations which are financial suicide now.

    We also have a big chain called JB Hi-Fi who are making money handover fist with shopping centre locations but the poor penetration and effort of Amazon here means so far they have cornered the market on price where they are VERY competitive.

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