Bye Bye, Maplin

Well, that was quick. Four days ago we mentioned that the British electronics retail chain Maplin was being offered for sale, and today it has been announced that no buyer has been found and the company is going into administration.

We dealt with all the nostalgia for what was roughly a British equivalent to Radio Shack in our previous post. Perhaps now it’s time to look beyond the jumpers-for-goalposts reminiscences about spaceships on the catalogues for a moment, and consider what this means for us in 2018.

It’s fairly obvious that a retail model for selling either electronic tat or components is no longer viable in an age of online ordering and availability of almost anything at knock-down prices for anyone prepared to wait for a packet from China. This applies on both sides of the Atlantic, but for British retailers, the killer combination of very high rents and local business taxes makes it particularly difficult. Maplin were extremely convenient when you needed a part immediately, but the universal reaction from Hackaday readers was that they were overpriced. It’s the same story that has cleared away numerous chains in other sectors, and the toxic view that retail property is still the goldmine it might have been in decades past is largely responsible.

Despite all that, there must still be some demand for electronic components at a retail level even if the economics no longer support a showroom model. Perhaps a trade counter operation might have better luck, it will be interesting to see whether suppliers such as RS Components or CPC expand their networks to try to capture that business. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted.

96 thoughts on “Bye Bye, Maplin

    1. If i’m not mistaken Tandy was the UK distributor for Radio Shack stuff but then became The Carephone Wharehouse when mobile phones took off.

      I used to spend hours flicking through the Maplin catalogue and deciding what to spend my pocket money on. That was back in the good days of Maplin when they were a proper component shop and not a gadget/toy shop that they evolved into. The only decent component shop left now is Cricklewood Electronics after Henry’s Radio has now closed.

      R.I.P Maplin who died many years before they went bust.

  1. I can’t see RS being interested in the occasional hobbyist.I don’t know their current policy on walk-in trade but before my nearest trade counter was closed, I heard them tell random walk-ins that they couldn’t serve them as their planning permission did not permit retail sales. This was well before the days of them selling Raspberry Pi’s and trying to befriend the “maker” market so this may have changed. I’ve not used an RS trade counter for years but they never carried much electronic stock – whenever I was there, most of their customers were electrician/industrial controls types.
    I just checked and their SE London trade counter does have at least ten 10K resistors in stock.

    1. > I can’t see RS being interested in the occasional hobbyist.

      Not walk in, but certainly RS is happy to sell in bits and pieces to hobbiests.

      Here in NZ RS will sell you a pack of 20 resistors paid by credit card with free courier delivery… for a total of 78 cents. Seriously. Obviously they are amortising shipping costs across all their orders (or in other words, subsidising shipping for those small things), but still.

      Add to that as well that they sell RasPI and Arduino stuff (not cheaply though) and that sort of thing, I think it’s reasonable to say that RS sees that at least that hobbiests become engineers, or engineers are hobbiests too.

      Note American friends, RS is not an acronym for Radio Shack, we are talking about RS Components

      1. In Europe RS components charge a lot in shipping and handling, even Mouser is cheaper. Best bet in Europe is smaller on-line retailers, Germany is a good country for that.

    2. RS have always been happy to sell to me as a hobbyest, you need to know what you want from the catalog to speed things along, but I saw a dad in there buying parts for his sons electronics project for school, they seemed to take the time to make sure the guy got what his boy needed.

      Maplin occupied highstreet locations all over though, unfortunately internet kinda killed both them and radioshack in the states, too easy to get exact parts from digikey, fernell, mouser, rs or even chinese markets (there was a cool talk about getting parts reliably from china at this years fosdem: https://mirror.as35701.net/video.fosdem.org/2018/K.4.201/oshw_shenzen.webm)

      I will miss being able to buy cable off the reel and looking at the cheap chinese gadgets, but selling resistors to the occasional shopper simply doesn’t justify the cost of the highstreet floorspace :(

          1. @[spacedog], Adafruit bought RadioShack Stock Certificates, not the Trademark or Corporation, or anything.
            When they bought the certificates, there was only collector value to them.

        1. Actually it was Comcast that secretly bought plus liquidated RadioShack. Similarly it was Sky pic that bought and is dismantling Maplin. It’s all about discouraging people from doing brainy things like building stuff so that they will spend more time watching TV.

          1. Like Motorbike repair shop drama reality TV on discovery channel instead of Extreme Engineering, Why aspire to build a hyperloop tunnel under the Atlantic when you can beat your obnoxous father over the head with a torque wrench.

      1. I’ve always maintained that it’s very difficult to distinguish the “hobbyist” from the “engineer working for a small company”. The only differentiator might be the credit worthiness of the company, but, if its small enough (say, two guys, let’s call them Dave and Ed, or Steve and Steve, if you prefer) there’s no credit and no corporation. Plenty of people I know professionally, including myself, buy parts on their personal credit card, then file for reimbursement.

        So, walk right in there,, like you own the place, and ask for what you need. If they ask you if it’s for a business, say “Yes, but we’re so small you probably haven’t heard of us” and let them wonder. Your credit card is as good as anyone else’s.

        Note: this doesn’t work if you’re 14. I know from experience. I’m older now :-)

    3. on shipping, I can’t remember if it was RS or Farnell (or both), but they used to have a minimum spend to get free shipping (about 20 quid or so). Then, when they started selling Raspberry Pis (about 6 years ago) they started a different ‘personal user’ type of account that was easier to set up and with free shipping (at least on Raspberry Pis).

      Last time I looked at CPC (owned by Farnell but probably aimed at individuals or smaller businesses), it was free shipping if ordered online (they sell a lot of what RS or Farnell sell). I’ve bought a lot of good stuff from CPC.

    4. I used to work a minute around the corner from an RS trade counter in Australia.

      Their policy was, if you have the cash, they’ll sell to you.

      The catalogue had marked the things in stock at the trade counter, so you knew what you could get right then. If it wasn’t in stick, you could order it for pickup or delivery

      Used them all the time for work and play until I moved away. Got to know the guys behind the counter a bit, cool guys.

      1. Stab in the dark, Stockport? :-)

        I bought two ILQ74 optocouplers for a grand total of 2 pound 50 from Maplin’s shop on Oxford road a couple of weeks ago. I was thinking, there’s no way this is going to keep them in business. I was the only customer there at the time.

        And the only reason I bought them from Maplin was that I needed them like yesterday. Otherwise, CPC / RS / Ebay all would’ve been adequate.

        Regarding Adafruit buying Maplin, not sure that’s a great idea. If I remember, there was a small shop in Northern Quarter selling arduinos and raspberry pis to hipsters. Even in Manchester’s hipster/maker epicentre (next to Madlab) they didn’t last very long…

        1. Nope, Cambridge. And there’s (surprisingly?) bugger-all specialist shops around any more, as I found out when I needed a 16-pin IDC socket the other week. Still waiting for it (and 19 more, ‘cos it’s still only 3 quid…) from China instead…

          1. Ha, I just cycled through there in the snow…. :-) Ever visited Mr Gee on Mill Road? Mostly ancient electronic stock (part of the charm, really) but often has things like that. Something like, “No, don’t think I have any, but I’ll go look. *rummages in stock room for 15 mins* Ah! I found 25, how many do you want?” He’s a star.

    1. Maplin’s problem, which is the same as Toys R Us’ problem, is that they don’t offer a compelling reason to go there any more.

      You can buy the same stuff cheaper online, and it’s not like Maplin have any electronic experts to advise you any more. In the business they call it “retail theatre”, i.e. making a nice shop that people actually want to go to.

      I’m seeing the same thing in Akihabara lately. It’s great being able to pick stuff up and look it over, chat to the old guys who know everything there is to know, get your case drilled out and machined on the spot, chat about issues you had assembling the kit amp you bought… But apparently it’s not enough to keep many of them in business.

      It’s a real shame because no-where else has such a great range of vintage components and browsing was great fun, but it’s also pretty hard to argue with the vast ranges available online.

      1. Fellow Akihabara shopper here! :D

        I’ve noticed the same, the small component stores are slowly drying up, but they are usually the ones that are selling the same dusty indicator lamps, switches and phono jacks as every other small store.

        I don’t think the likes of Marutsu, Akizuki Denshi, Classic Components and the like will disappear too soon. Even the smaller shops that specialise in stuff people want seem pretty solid.

        Still hurts a bit to see one go only to be replaced by another short lived used laptop/cellphone store.

      2. I’m a former Akihabara shopper (left Japan in 1997). It’s a shame to hear that – in the late ’80s and ’90s it was an amazing place – anything you wanted. I would spend a couple of days a month in that labrynth under the railway! I suppose ‘Vintage Components’ is the problem when a micro does much of what the NE555 & 741 did or what logic solutions you could come up with in TTL or CMOS.

    2. Maplin’s problem, which is the same as Toys R Us’ problem, is that they don’t offer a compelling reason to go there any more.

      You can buy the same stuff cheaper online, and it’s not like Maplin have any electronic experts to advise you any more. In the business they call it “retail theatre”, i.e. making a nice shop that people actually want to go to.

      I’m seeing the same thing in Akihabara lately. It’s great being able to pick stuff up and look it over, chat to the old guys who know everything there is to know, get your case drilled out and machined on the spot, chat about issues you had assembling the kit amp you bought… But apparently it’s not enough to keep many of them in business.

      It’s a real shame because no-where else has such a great range of vintage components and browsing was great fun, but it’s also pretty hard to argue with the vast ranges available online.

    3. I had a similar dream during the Radio Shack crisis here in the US. But when I woke up I realized those same customers will have the same unrealistic expectations of brick and mortar stores, with employees that deserve a just wage.

        1. I was never aware of there demise. It looks like Anchorage killed them off and knew that they’d done, selling them off before anyone could see the near future fate. Sad really, happens to the best of them.

    1. They seem to be doing exactly what the grinning glasses were doing about 15 years ago.

      They’re expanding, but more with off-the-shelf electronic gadgets rather than components. Before long, the components side will shrink and disappear altogether. They’ll move into the shopping centres to take on the likes of JB HiFi and Hardley Normals, then go bust.

    2. I’ve assumed that Jaycar survives by sticking with the basic components product line that Dick Smith gave up in an attempt to be the next Harvey Norman. Here’s to hoping. I used to spent money there all the time before moving to Maplinland.

  2. They did this to themselves. At the start of the last recession they decided to open more branches, bigger stores in towns that had no proven need for them. They swamped the country with branches everywhere. They failed to hire speciallist or interested staff, No one knows anything about the products.

    As soon as you enter their stores, they jump on you “DO YOU NEED ANY HELP???” I hate that so much I only enter when I have no other options – I’d rather wait 6 weeks for a part to arrive from China than walk in to a store that will pester me the very second I enter!

    And another major failing on their part – they had such a poor pricing structure and attitude. They grossly overpriced themselves – RPi’s for £45 when everyone else is £30-£35, components that no domestic customer will want at prices even commercial buyers would question, and hard drives a 1/3rd more expensive than everywhere else.

    The joke has been for many years when Maplins had a sale they bring their prices down to everyone else’s level.

    Buy now while shops last.

    1. I don’t think it was just their over-eagerness in store that was much of the issue, I thought it was more they were trying to emulate a store that they were traditionally not. So rather than focusing on what made them great (parts) and expanding onto the hobby market, they seemed to be going after the more main-stream high-street retail (think: toys, overpriced hifi cables, printers)

    2. > RPi’s for £45 when everyone else is £30-£35

      This was the major killer for me. I don’t mind paying RRP for something if it means not waiting for delivery, but paying over the RRP feels like such a rip-off and that’s not really a sentiment you want associated with your shop. Everything else I could put up with, but given a choice between a discount for a several day delivery or well-over the recommended price for it now, well, it’s rare that I need anything *that* urgently.

    3. I worked in Maplin briefly, and the “DO YOU NEED ANY HELP???” thing was required. When I was there the manager sat in the office watching the CCTV all day and you got told off for not jumping on people immediately. It was like 1984 land, and made me pretty uncomfortable.

      The most ridiculous thing about it was that me the teenager with a brand new A level in Electronics was by far the most qualified to actually help people, and still felt very underqualified to help them.

      1. tge eagerness of the staff to pounce on you soon as you walked in genuinely put me off going. i hate that shit. i would onlu go if it was a total emergency . had no issue with inflated prices, its a brick and mortar store, but the harrassment from staff was awefull. and the worst was it wss clear they didnt want to do it either. then there was the 10 minute sales pitch for batteries torches and screwdrivers at the till. then the request fir an email address etc. that drove me away. as im sure it did many others.

    4. I would agree they should have concentrated on the mail/online order with a few shops in the big cities like Manchester,London Leeds. It’s shame that 3500 may end up with no jobs though.

    5. Actually, “DO YOU NEED ANY HELP???” is not so bad. But only if you know that the guy can actually help you. I.e. by checking your design and advising you to e.g. use a different brand of microcontroller, because they can drive a higher load, or can handle an input signal of 24 volt with only a current-limiting resistor. Or advise you to use a different voltage regulator, or maybe use the cheapest one, but add a voltage reference. That sort of advice. But just by looking at the guy, you can immediately see that he has a ‘sales’ background and not an electronics background, and isn’t even an electronics hobbyist.

      And exactly THAT is what’s putting me off. The guy isn’t asking “do you need any help???”, the guy is asking “can I sell you anything???”. His question is insincere, and I hate people who are already insincere to me even before they said “hi”. Besides, it’s obviously the seller who needs (a different sort of) help, not me. So who are they to offer their help to me?

      To be true, Apple (of all companies) is doing it quite right in their App Stores. All the people in the App Stores are knowledgeable people, are of te smart(er) sort, etc. Actually, they don’t ask “do you need any help?”. They are nuanced enough to ask “can I help you with something?”. And they don’t ask immediately when you come in, but after a while. I suspect they have observers walking around, seeking out people who seem to be in need of some help, and then send someone to help them out. :) Quite a bit smarter, and it makes me feel respected.

      1. Two comments to your comment.
        Once, ( >20 years ago) I applied for a job at RadioShack.
        The manager said he’d rather hire someone with a sales background over an electronics background.
        That said (written), the local RadioShack had a salesperson (the Manager?) who was very knowledgeable in Electronics, (an EE perhaps?). He gave good advice, and if he saw we were knowledgeable, willingly left us alone.

    6. They did do it to themselves – too much emphasis on sell-sell-sell, too pricey, not a great range and few people, if any with any expertise. They thought they were Marks & Spencer and that they could dupe the man-on-the-street with cheap, overpriced goods and toys. It’s a shame the convenience of a quick fix for a capacitor or something is gone, but otherwise, good riddance.

      I wonder if New Wave Concepts will be shocked-awake by this – I’m thinking so. Maplin were the only UK distributor for LiveWire, PCB Wizard 3, etc. Not very professional software, or anywhere near as competent as say KiCAD, but with an almost flatlined learning curve – you can just get simple projects done in twenty minutes, or less. I upgraded to PCB Wizard 3 Pro version by calling NWC with the help of Maplin staff and getting an unlock code for £25. That was in 2005 or so. I mentioned that the software could do with an update and was told that, “We don’t really bother with it anymore – people just seem to keep buying it.”[sic] Very nice business if you can get it but this may well provide the slap-in-the-face that they need, but let’s hope they don’t think that they have become Altium and that their original coder is still with them…

    1. I have a similar experience, I recently put together a BOM, maplin couldn’t fulfill it but what they did have came to £57.00 , RS could fulfill it but it came to £87.00 ali express obviously could fullfil it and for £36.00, I can wait.

    2. I needed a 3.5mm headphone jack for a project this weekend. I ordered 50 on eBay for the same price I found exactly the same single one from Maplins. Crazy pricing. I appreciate paying more in bricks and mortar but the pricing ratios were so obscene I couldn’t justify anything other than urgently required parts.

    3. Depends a lot on the cap.
      All the disc ceramics I have gotten from china have been garabage and out of spec.
      Only good for bypassing non-critical things. And even then only at low voltages.

      SMD caps so far have been ok. fingers crossed.

    1. Many many moons ago, there was a place in downtown Belfast. I used to take the bus in on Saturday mornings to buy my goodies. No idea what happened to it. or even the name.

      1. Was it electronic centre by any chance?also known as fast eddies, its still there, but I dont know for how long it will last.. Maplin boucher road closed its doors today for the last time, as someone who shopped in the lisburn rd store before finally working there, ill miss the place as both a customer and an employee. Some of these comments are a bit crazy tho, expecting someone in a store to check over your circuits, for a retail wage is just crazy, especially when people with the skillset and experience to do that could be earning an awful lot more than a retail position pays.

    2. According to Google, there’s a Rutronik’s off Cromac Ave. but I’ve never even heard of them. For surplus stuff you could always try the amateur radio rallies?

      1. “a minimal store-front with a large warehouse out the back that items are pulled from)”

        Sort of like Grainger, or Gray-bar here in the States, but they are more electrical than electronic.

      2. yes, I also like this. Screwfix are the the opposite end of the scale to Homebase. At homebase, you can probably buy a packet of 4 machine screws for about 4 pounds, whilst at Screwfix you can get a bag of about 100 for a quid (or something like that). Homebase are in a similar position to Maplin, struggling financially and not really clear on what part of the market they are trying to sell to. I could see them going belly up soon.

    1. But this lack of imagination is probably why they are where they are now. I’m guessing; “Partnership, what’s that? We’ve never done that sort of thing before – best to stick to what we know…”

  3. I used to try to get parts from Maplins, they had 2 stores in a city about 30 mins drive from me, but in order to get the 5 resistors I needed, I had to drive to *both* stores as the usual stock level of discretes were about 2-4 of each part. I mean seriously??
    The prices didnt bother me too much, it was more the fact that they had such a pitiful stocking level.

    1. Yup, 2x each is policy. Thing is, for the bother of putting them in little plastic drawers, they may as well have had 10. The cost price to them must be negligible anyway, particularly compared to all the other costs of running a real-life shop. They’re very keen on offering them mail order. Which is supremely stupid, I’m fucking stood here! Why would I want to mail-order something, in the shop?

  4. I am fortunate that I am in the business and have trade accounts with all major suppliers but I do wonder what is out there for hobbyists and students any more.

    Maplins got rid of their Wombwell trade counter years ago and I stopped using CPC and Farnell in 2016 when they closed their Leeds Trade Counter and made my account manager redundant.

    For me, Maplins was a bus ride away and I was always buying caps, resistors, op-amps, Transistors, 74 and 4000 series IC’s as well as the various kits they used to create.

    I suppose branching out was necessary but I wonder how many PC parts they sell when there are so many independent shops selling the same stuff much cheaper.

    Maybe they should have closed the big stores and gone back to the catalogue model, stocking the hobbyist parts again for more realistic prices.

    I would rather pay a little more to buy components online from a respected UK company and have delivered in days than take a risk purchasing off ebay from China and have my fingers crossed that the parts arrive, are not fake, are what I ordered and of good quality.

    1. “Maybe they should have closed the big stores and gone back to the catalogue model, stocking the hobbyist parts again for more realistic prices.”

      I think it was the “mall stores” that did RadioShack in, high rent. Many “Mom and Pop” RadioShacks that were independantly owned, and could sell and repair other items were good at weathering economic downturns.

  5. Not only for hobbysts. I see this in my country. Some of the parts I buy are for hobby projects, some are for work. The thing that makes me buy from the internet ( the good stores when possible, chinese sites when no option left or little money ) is that stores do not carry even normal parts. Conectors ? “We only have this. “. SMD resistors ? Last week none of the stores here had any. XYZ cable ? no way. And etc, etc etc. If they had a better stock of parts, I would buy here, even if prices for china are lower. The most important store about here was a one-door one, where we could chat with the old buy at the office, that was around almost since the diode was invented, and could really advise you about the components you need or the equivalence.

    Now ? The girls at the counters will eve say the component you are looking for doesn´t exist ( even if you bought one in that same store the last morning ) .

  6. Here in the US, MicroCenter seems to be making many of the components available. Not as many as RS but enough that I can usually get close to what I need on a Saturday afternoon.

  7. Well, I’m hoping for a closing-down sale at least.
    I have used the one near me from time to time. Yes, they’re always more expensive, but when you need something *right now* there’s no other option, and now no option at all.

  8. You have to look at the purchase matrix of the customers. My local component house, a 60+ year old place (with late 40’s vintage tubes in the back…) is probably going to shut down in the next year. The walk in business just doesn’t support the inventory costs. They have had ~20 of every 7400 in stock for the 30 years I’ve been going there. Most of what they had the first day I went in is still there. That’s a pretty big overhead. Same goes for 90% of the other components. They just don’t move. Sure, once every few years someone stumbles in and buys them out of 74ls32’s, they order a few more and change the price on the front of the box, but by and large, they made their money on things that needed to be ordered from distributors. The ability to do that yourself has removed almost, if not all of their margin.

    I spent a few days looking at the economics of buying the place. The best option was buy it, sell off the inventory to a wholesaler/scrapper, bulldoze the building, and sell the land. Until I realized that any building that old, in that location, had serious toxic waste issues. (it’s part of a 130+ year old foundry/rail yard).

  9. In The Netherlands (and Germany) there’s still ‘Conrad’. But with their prices, I wonder how long *they* will keep existing? At least their prices are not so high that I never buy from them. I guess that maybe their price point is perfect. If I need something in a day or 2, I can buy from Conrad and not feel ripped-off. If I don’t need it right away, it’s EBay for me.

    1. Sounds like a rough equivalent in Derby would be R. F. Potts – tiny little electrical/electronics shop that’s been going for what feels like centuries. Behind the counter there’s a wall covered in drawers seemingly containing every component imaginable – and if they don’t have a direct replacement, they’ll recommend a suitable alternative. Also, a front window filled with reclaimed mechanisms and gadgets – ideal project inspiration.

      I just wish they’d open a branch in Seattle, where I live now…

  10. In the US, I am baffled that Michael’s, AC Moore, and Hobby Lobby have not dipped a toe into DIY electronics. I’m sure they can afford to carry just a few less fake flowers. Just one 8-foot rack would be enough to stock some basics. Not one component per pack, of course, but a limited number of SKUs for grab-bags of caps, resistors, blinkies, transistors, etc., plus the usual Ardu/Pi stuff.

  11. Surely not refreshing to see that electronics hobbyists are unrealistic wherever they are in the ‘first” world. I started waiting on customers when I was age 12, when a prompt approach was expected, and still is by most. For every person who has an aversion that by that there will be one complaining it took too long for the staff to assist. Technically competent and knowledgeable hard working staff can write themselves a good paycheck, they aren’t likely to stay around cheap skate customers. Retail can be very profitable, and I had several opportunities to enter it, but after consideration I ended up choosing to be a valuable employee for someone with the constitution to tolerate petty people. That has served me well.

  12. I worked at both Tandy and Maplin for years with some extremely happy memories. After watching the “death” of Tandy (thats another story but it never went bust but was actually doing well) I knew Maplin would go down the same road as it opened store after store in expensive locations.
    Like them or the prices or not, it was a place where you would walk into on the highstreet and buy your first electronics kit and did actually have some really knowledgeable staff (amongst the many typical gormless sales staff) and will a be a big loss to not just the high street but also the engineering and electronics industries.

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