It wasn't always this quick. Popular culture used to take time to become truly popular, trends moving from the coast to the heartland. But the rise of mass media changed all that, and now MTV and Spin magazine carry the latest notions of hip like winds carry wildfire. Kids in Muncie, Ind., and Stanton, Ky., see what the cool kids are wearing and doing in New York and L.A., and they don't need no stinkin' cultural lag. They want the hip, and they want it now, and they want it easily accessible.

Enter Hot Topic. Whether you're a skate punk or a “baby bat” goth, if you're a music fan of a certain (young) age, the City of Industry, Calif.-based clothing chain has the clothing and accessories you're looking for. In malls across the country, the retailer offers the latest in club fashion, T-shirts, and other supplies, from handbags to hair dye and beyond.

And by tying in to the music scene, Hot Topic has the street cred to back up its products. From sponsoring the Ozzfest nü-Metal package festival to reimbursing store employees who go to concerts and file fashion reports, the retailer stays abreast of what's hip and what's about to be.

This passion for the ubercool draws scenesters and wannabes into Hot Topic, but it's the attention to those customers that drives the chain's success. Customer feedback isn't just encouraged, it's cherished: Hot Topic President Betsy McLaughlin personally reads every customer comment card, saying she'd rather hear the unvarnished truth than a translation. The retailer's website (www.hottopic.com) is another critical source of customer input. And when a company responds to customer input, it creates a sense of ownership in its customers. Hot Topic becomes “their” place.

Rebel with a cause

Of course, you can tell that just by looking a requirement for any subculture worth the name. Hot Topic sports a clubland look (newly designed by JGA, Southfield, Mich.) that distinguishes it from the rest of the mallscape. From the nightclub-derived tunnel entrance to the general industrial aesthetic and urban-feeling brickwork, the message is clear: “Your parents don't shop here.” Which, of course, means that you should. Ultimately, the effect isn't so much that of a store as it is a place to hang like video arcades, food courts, and CD stores, it's a destination within the greater destination of the mall.

For McLaughlin, this makes perfect business sense. When asked to describe the chain's competition, she says that it's anything that draws the disposable income from teens and twentysomethings. But when the world is the competition, the retailer has to remain focused on what it does that the rest of the world doesn't, which brings us back to the attention to music and the customer.

While Hot Topic intends to maintain its focus, it will be broadening its reach with a rollout of stores across the United States, beginning in major markets and filling gaps afterward. The chain will add about 60 stores each year until it grows to about 700 stores from 212 at the beginning of 2000.

Asked if this constitutes aggressive expansion, McLaughlin says she doesn't think so, given that the company is selective about the markets and malls it chooses a selectivity that she links to the fact that Hot Topic has never had a money-losing location.

Attracting teens

So if Hot Topic is selective, what are the criteria it employs? While noting Hot Topic stores can thrive in B malls as well as A malls, McLaughlin says the retailer looks for teen magnet co-tenants such as CD stores and movie theaters. Locations near gathering places including food courts are also preferred, in addition to the usual considerations such as spots near the mall's “50-yard line.”

So what lies ahead for Hot Topic? Well, as long as music continues to play a defining role in the tribes of American youth, Hot Topic will have its niche, supplying that tribal regalia.

Whether or not the chain will continue to fill that niche depends on consumers' continued love of the music-based lifestyle. McLaughlin sees that lifestyle as marking Hot Topic and its staff from the corporate level to the cashwraps. In that regard, things look good McLaughlin notes the stores have an extremely low rate of employee turnover, reflecting the idea that Hot Topic is a destination employer as well as a destination store.

That combination of employee and customer commitment may well prove to be the strength that keeps Hot Topic on message and edgy in a world where notions of cool spread rapidly, and disappear rapidly as well.

W.S. Moore III is a Muncie, Ind.-based writer.

Torrid is cool, plus

For years, the young plus-size shopper has been doomed to variously disguised versions of muumuu purgatory. While their junior-sized friends were free to follow all the fashion they could stand, young women above a size 14 were restricted to an appallingly limited array of apparel choices, further bedeviled by the industry's notion that plus-size meant middle-aged or older as well.

Torrid, Hot Topic's new retail concept, plans to stomp that old way of thinking flatter than a mouse in a mosh pit. Describing itself as “the alternative for sizes 14-26” (the fastest-growing segment of the apparel industry) Torrid launched its first six stores for ages 15 to 30 in Spring of 2001, in locations such as the Brea Mall, in Brea, Calif., and malls from Boston to Omaha to San Diego.

Driven by customer requests for a store combining plus sizes with alternative style, the store offers fashions from gothic to ravewear. As Hot Topic President Betsy McLaughlin notes, the customers wanted a store that realized that, as one customer wrote, “I have style too.” But the Hot Topic attitude will remain. At last, plus-sized young women will have a place to buy vinyl skirts or novelty T-shirts. No muumuus are necessary.