We went to Hot Topic and saw how the chain is beating the odds amid record-low mall traffic by catering to every pop culture niche
- Hot Topic is expanding despite tough conditions in retail and in malls.
- With over 670 stores across the US and Canada, the chain sells merchandise based on whatever trend is sweeping the nation, from punk music to Harry Potter.
- We stopped by a location in Queens, New York and saw why the atypical store has a brilliant strategy for surviving amid declining mall traffic.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Hot Topic may have peaked in the 90s, but the teen accessories and clothing retailer is still thriving, selling merchandise from practically every fandom and obsession under the sun.
The chain has over 670 stores across the U.S. and Canada, despite declining traffic in US malls with record vacancies. That's up from 662 locations as of 2014, according to to the New York Times. The company also maintains a reliable channel of online sales through its website, which launched in 1996.
Steve Vranes, the CEO of Hot Topic since 2016, said that the company's edge is owed to multiple factors. "To our customers, Hot Topic is more than a retailer," he said, calling the store an inclusive space for people to embrace what they love. "We represent community and self-expression."
The store started out of a garage in Southern California in 1989 and mostly sold accessories and items adorned with skulls and spikes. Today, Hot Topic is more than a haven for punks, goths, and rockers - it's a fandom geek's heaven and likely the only place you can pick up a Harry Potter backpack and a clown-themed piece of lingerie all in one stop.
We visited a Hot Topic to see what the chain was doing right and saw how its ability to conform to changing fads is driving its success.
We visited a Hot Topic located in a mall in Queens, New York. One look inside let us know we that we were not stepping into your average mall store.
There were some racks with clothes at the entrance to the store that were on sale. We thought this was a great move to entice passersby to step inside for a look.
The inside of the store kind of had a thrift-store feeling to it, as the walls and shelves were completely lined with merchandise from top to bottom.
There were some cardboard clearance bins in the front of the store that held some cool T-shirts with pop culture references on them. Plus, there was a "buy two, get two free" sale going on at the time, so the price was right.
A store associate with facial piercings and turquoise hair let us know that there was a sale of backpacks going on at the time.
Even though it was the middle of the day on a weekday, the store was still packed with shoppers. Everyone who came inside seemed enchanted with the offerings in the store and excited to find their own fandom represented.
In the '90s, Hot Topic sold a lot of skull and spike-adorned accessories. This store still carried remnants of the older merchandise, but there were a lot of newer items as well.
We found two huge walls of T-shirts in the store that represented different fandoms in television and music. "Our wall of music tees is iconic and a staple in all stores," Vranes told us.
The wall of shirts seemed especially popular among customers who wanted to wear their obsession proudly on their chest — literally.
Over 75% of the items at Hot Topic are licensed by intellectual property owners like entertainment studios, music labels, and music vendors, Vranes told us. Still, we could not believe how many fandoms we found in the store.
Naturally, we immediately found the popular ones like "Harry Potter" and "Game of Thrones."
We also found a whole section devoted to merchandise from "Stranger Things, Season 2."
This costume of one of the central characters from "Stranger Things" stuck out to us because of its authenticity and quality. A lot of people in the store stopped to take a closer look at this section in particular.
Merchandise from "SpongeBob SquarePants" also made an appearance ...
... as did items from Tim Burton's 1993 stop-motion classic, "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
"The Nightmare Before Christmas" was actually one of the first fandoms to appear in Hot Topic stores in 1994 — and its presence is still going strong today.
Some products —like these "Beetlejuice" items —were a little more obscure and would take a true fan to recognize them.
Being Disney fanatics, we immediately recognized the red dress on the left as the one worn by Lilo in Disney's "Lilo and Stitch," but the T-shirt on the left worn by Harley Quinn in "Suicide Squad' took longer to place.
We had to look up this quote online to learn that it was referencing the 1996 film "The Craft."
Surprisingly, we found a small selection of regular clothing that was unadorned with pop culture embellishments or references. Jeans were on sale for a "buy one, get one for $10" deal ...
... and some more ordinary jackets were also available.
In the back of the store, we found a few large cases of body jewelry, a Hot Topic staple, which was also on sale.
We also found some bowties and hair scrunchies ...
... as well as these adorable plush toys referencing an assortment of movies and shows.
Everything in the store had a pop culture bent to it, like this Monopoly board based on the TV series "Riverdale."
We loved this collection of bobblehead figurines from Funko and Pop! that referenced classic movies and television shows.
For the most part, the store could be described as loud, from the startling offerings to the blasting rock and punk music that was playing while we shopped.
The store demanded to be heard — and its shoppers seemed like they were all ears. It seemed like a place you could come to find like-minded fans of whatever you're into across all of pop culture.
Near the checkout line, we found a few bowls of assorted tchotchkes and trinkets.
It seemed like this store had something for everyone. Behind the register, there were some more knickknacks and random items including snacks and hair accessories.
There were also a few dramatics scents on display as well.
As we left, we understood why Hot Topic is doing so well. The store is the perfect mix of vintage and new. As Vranes said, "What’s popular with our consumer is always changing."
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