Christmas shopping in Australia back in the 1980s meant summertime, heatwaves, flies, Westfield shopping centres, the hope that Santa had received my letter, and last but not least… a visit to Tandy Electronics to see their R/C cars.
Those were my experiences anyway. And even though Tandy Electronics is now long gone, summertime always reminds me of the fun of seeing all those brand new R/C vehicles, stacked on the Tandy showroom floor…
I’ve written too many times in the past about how much I used to love Tandy Electronics at Christmas. At least back in their heyday of the 1980s. By the mid 1990s they had lost their mojo, and they never recovered. But in the 1980s they were pretty interesting stores to visit.
And with Christmas approaching once again (and my recent discovery of some vintage Tandy TV commercials that I had not seen before) I hope you’ll forgive me for reminiscing about this subject again…
Picture the scene – Australia. The middle of summer. Mid-to-late 1980s. Christmas.
I’m fairly certain that those of you who are reading this in places like the United States or Europe, will forever find the very suggestion of a summer Christmas, appalling.
But like all things – when you grow up with it, it’s all you know. And most Aussie kids are raised to enjoy Christmas with a slightly odd mix of both summer and winter influences anyway. So we develop an appreciation for the winter Christmas, while seamlessly integrating that foreign imagery into our summer activities. Think: inflatable reindeers in the swimming pool, and aerosol cans of (highly flammable) “snow” that you spray on your Christmas tree.
In Australia, summer runs from December to February. And December’s crowded Christmas shopping days often take place in the middle of a heatwave. Even Santa hits the beach, as he did in this 1991 Dick Smith Electronics tv commercial…
As a kid in the 1980s, I’d usually travel to a nearby town with my parents and sister for our Christmas shopping (in our family 4×4, with no air-conditioning).
There, we’d head for a large shopping centre (usually a Westfield or something similar), park in a huge parking lot, and make the short walk from the lot to the automatic doors of the complex, in mid-morning air temperatures of over 30°C.
From there we’d be greeted by what we’d come for – a welcome blast of air-conditioned heaven, as we walked inside. And after sweating in the car for so long, we probably looked like this…
(Sincere apologies to the excellent Sydney nostalgia blog Past Lives of the Near Future for pinching that image, but it was simply too funny not to use! – please visit them for much more Australian retail history)
Indoor shopping centres really took-off in popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. And it heralded the beginning of the end for most “main street” shopping as far as I can tell.
Believe it or not, air-conditioning alone probably had something to do with this. Sounds crazy? Well, just have a listen to this vintage Westfield Shoppingtown Christmas TV commercial which (based on the hairstyles) must be from about 1985…
“Shopping for Christmas is an air-conditioned breeze at Westfield…”
Yes, the very existence of air-conditioning, at the shops, was mentioned in a television commercial.
Inevitably, shopping centres like Westfield would also have winter displays of reindeer, pine trees, and fake snow along the concourse, as you wandered around inside doing your shopping. Santa would be there too, in a big chair, surrounded by elves, tinsel, photographers and long queues of nervous, excited (and crying) children, waiting for their chance.
Sometimes there’d even be a huge cage-wire contraption nearby, shaped like a boot (a Christmas “stocking”) and filled with goodies from all over the shopping centre as part of a huge raffle. These things always looked incredible – packed with toys, televisions, and even objects like lawn mowers. As an 8 year old, it seemed like a prize beyond dreams – more stuff than would fit in the cubic area of our entire living room. And I couldn’t imagine what would happen if my family won it (alas, of course, it never happened).
Shopping centres back in those days also weren’t as glossy and fashion-biased as they are today.
Rather than endless corridors of ladies clothing stores and hardly anything else, there used to be a much more eclectic range of shops to choose from. There was something for everyone inside your average shopping centre: clothing, hifi, electronics, toys, gift shops, homewares, games, books, hobbies.
The larger “Department Stores” had actual departments inside them too. Not just clothes, cosmetics & homewares – but toys, sporting goods, audio, auto parts, barbecues, outdoor furniture, computers…
Today’s department stores no longer carry half the range they did 30 years ago, nor a quarter of what they carried a century ago. They are now little more than massive clothing stores.
Although at least the Australian Department Stores still have toy sections. I was positively bewildered when I visited Macy’s Department Store in New York City a couple of years ago to discover that they no longer even sell any toys. Yet they continue to host Santa photos. Thousands of people queue there every year, waiting for up to two hours to sit their kid on Santa’s lap, so that he or she can ask Santa for a product that the store doesn’t even sell. What genius came up with that missed opportunity?
But back to Australia in the 1980s…
I also believe shopping centres here used to have a certain “indoor village” type atmosphere too, where it wasn’t unusual to see the unusual.
For example, have a look at these two images of a Westfield shopping centre near Sydney, back in 1986. Some off-road vehicles like a VW Beetle and a Land Rover were on display as part of some sort of “show & tell” promotion for the annual “Redex Bash”…
(More archival photos of the vehicles being prepped and displayed can be found here).
The Redex Bash (now known as the Variety Club Bash) is an annual charity car rally, first organized by 1980s icon (and electronics store owner) Dick Smith, in which loads of vintage vehicles covered in sponsor logos trek from one famous Australian town to another – usually across the outback, generating interest from crowds waving them by.
But can you imagine today’s shopping centres, with their ballroom sheen and iPhone tapping, macaron-munching shoppers, having any interest in a display of rough, dirty off-road vehicles? In a modern shopping centre that looks like this?
I just don’t think it would happen.
But as a kid, the hive of activity in shopping centres, and the various displays and shows that were always on, were often fun. They also made Christmas fun. And in the case of the Redex Bash car display, I’d have seen those cars and thought “cool!” and probably wanted to replicate the adventures of those vehicles in my own backyard, with my toy cars.
And what was the best store for finding some powered toy cars, in any shopping centre, back in those days?…
(Tandy Electronics store entrance, circa 1983)
No Christmas shopping trip of the 1980s or early 1990s was complete for me, without at least one visit to Tandy Electronics. Even if I had no hope of getting anything from Tandy for Christmas that year, I’d still drag my Mum over, just to ‘have a look’.
If my Dad was there, no dragging was really necessary, as he would be one step ahead of me and headed there anyway. On more than one occasion, I can remember us walking the entire length of a shopping centre, just to find the Tandy that we knew was down there…somewhere. Tandy even took precedence over most other toy stores or department stores, for my Dad and I. And the reason for this was because even though other toy shops had great things as well, Tandy had a way of putting their Christmas gifts on display that was just a little more interesting.
Walk into any Tandy Electronics store in the 1980s, and the first thing you’d see would be a display of electronic and R/C toys piled in the centre on the floor. Usually it was a few boxed examples of each car, with one unboxed car sitting on the very top. And the one on top was usually a sample model, loaded with batteries, and ready to be test-driven…
This was so brilliant to me, that my earliest memories of visiting Tandy Electronics actually date back to Christmas in 1984 when I was barely 7 years old. How many stores can you remember visiting when you were 7? Yet I can distinctly remember visiting Tandy at that age inside a Westfield shopping centre, and having a salesman encourage me to test-drive as many R/C models as I wanted to. To see which ones I liked the most. No other store I knew, offered such fun.
As such, I can remember ‘taking the wheel’ for the first time on their Jeep and VW Beetle, and then blasting an impressive little Porsche 935-78 out of the store at high speed, 20 metres across the Westfield concourse, and straight into the foot of some innocent lady who happened to be walking by at the wrong moment.
By the mid to late 1980s, Tandy had more stores in Australia than ever before (over 400 at one point). And in some years their range of ready-to-run R/C models was so impressive (for it’s day) that it must have introduced countless people to the fun of R/C models.
The following images all hail from some previously lost 1987 Tandy Christmas TV commercials that I recently found…
It wasn’t just R/C cars at Tandy though, as they also had advanced tech-toys like the famously cute Robie Junior robot, ready to cruise around on the smooth carpet and impress everyone with it’s simple chattering and those big, glowing eyes…
Without further ado then, here are those two Christmas commercials from 1987…
Clip 1 – featuring R/C cars…
And clip 2 – featuring other electronic items, including Robie Junior…
There are more lost Australian Tandy commercials still out there (featuring R/C cars), as I can clearly remember seeing a few of these kinds of ads each year. One I remember from 1988 featured several cars (including an off-road Porsche 959 styled ala the Paris-Dakar winning vehicle of the mid 80s) being driven out of a wrapped Christmas present box.
Of course, after spending half an hour messing about with the R/C cars at Tandy just like the kid in that commercial (minus the racing suit), it would be back to the shopping. And later, back to the car.
By this point, the car had been outside, baking in the midday summer sun for hours, while temperatures had soared to over 40°C.
I can’t really explain what it’s like walking out of an ice-cool shopping centre into instant 40°C heat, and the moment when the automatic doors first open and you cross that threshold… but it’s something every Australian shopper will be familiar with. The heat sort of hits you in the face like a thick blanket as you emerge. For a second, you wonder if it’s still possible to breathe – then you realize that the air entering your lungs is warmer than your body, hence it feels numb. You just have to keep breathing via muscle memory, and assume it’s working.
Then it’s a race to get yourself (and your Christmas chocolates) into the car as quickly as possible, while turning the car ventilation fans to full blast. (If you already had an air-conditioned car back in the 1980s, then all I have to say to you is…go away).
But despite all our hot weather and the “faux Winter” of our decorations, Christmas in Australia is not something I’d trade for anything in the world.
And it’s funny how all your memories of those times tend to cross-pollinate over the years as well, and you create vivid associations between different things.
Tandy Electronics Australia is now nothing more than a faded shop sign above a crap-tastic hair-salon pun, somewhere in Sydney, having closed their doors years ago – swept away by changes in the very technology market where they once flourished.
But to this day, warm weather always reminds of Christmas.
Christmas always reminds me of shopping trips.
And any time I’m in a shopping centre around Christmas, I still catch myself looking off into the distance, wondering if I might still catch a glimpse of the big, bright, red Tandy logo somewhere down the concourse…
And when you grow up having all your Christmases in warm weather, you do learn to love the benefits that come with it. Like warm afternoons after school, long daylight hours over the holidays, enjoying time with the family outdoors, swimming pools. Not to mention plenty of time to play with your new Christmas toys, outside in the street or the yard, until the light of the evening has completely faded and your family calls you inside…
Merry Christmas for 2015 everyone.
And here’s hoping there’s an R/C car (or three) under your tree this year!