The Reverse Aging Of Retail

When Hot Topic first opened its doors in 1989, it branded itself as being all about “alternative culture” before the concept of “alternative” was even really a part of the cultural lexicon.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, the mall-based store focused largely on selling licensed concert apparel (along with emo and goth accessories) — t-shirts being paramount in that regard — featuring images of ostensibly “outsider” artists … and we say “ostensibly” because, while bands like Nirvana and Metallica were, in their prime, mysterious and off-putting to most people over the age of 30, they were, during the same period, very much embraced by teens and young adults (capped, let’s say, at 22), who were Hot Topic’s target consumer group.

As to whether the 12- to 22-year-old demographic remains the retail chain’s target consumer group today is somewhat murky.

The company itself appears to have officially lopped five years off the low end of that categorization range and added two at the top, defining it in a recent press release as “18- to 24-year-old men and women.”

On its face, that is not exactly a seismic readjustment — particularly in light of the fact that, with mall-based retailers being imperiled as teen-centric chains, such as Aéropostale, file for bankruptcy, they are doing what they can to reposition themselves in order to stay afloat … and Hot Topic is no exception.

As Marketplace points out, Hot Topic has undergone a gradual rebranding, in which it moved away from its emo and goth origins and towards a more inclusive, all-things-pop-culture sort of general offering. Still “outsider-y,” as it were, but welcoming to a wider range of outsiders.

Even that more liberal classification, though, seems at odds with what Hot Topic announced yesterday (May 10): The retailer is teaming up with Disney on an exclusive line of merchandise inspired by the upcoming live-action “Alice in Wonderland” sequel, “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”

That clothing will be available in kids’ sizes, yes … but also for adults.

We’re talking about grown men wearing comically oversized, lavishly adorned top hats in public — and not on Halloween … but, like, on a Tuesday in June. (To work? Jeez, no … nobody should wear that to work.)

Putting aside the impracticality of the Hot Topic/“Alice Through the Looking Glass” costume apparel as part of anyone’s day-to-day wardrobe, another incongruity of the offering exists in the very fact that the retailer — which markets itself to teens and young adults as being dedicatedly “alternative” — has partnered with Disney — a decidedly “insider-y,” multi-billion dollar corporation targeted squarely (and quite successfully) at the masses.

(And it’s not the first time, either. Just last month, Hot Topic and Disney released a store-exclusive clothing line based on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”)

Hot Topic has been in business for over a quarter century’s time — currently operating 685 stores in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico — so it’s safe to say that the company has been doing some things right. If its recent moves toward greater amounts of what are seemingly child-centric offerings (or, to be as ecumenical as possible, products for adults who are kids at heart), such as those of its Disney partnerships, are a direct result of the retailer needing to scramble somewhat as more and more mall-based stores fall, the chance of resultantly alienating the “alternative” consumer demographic is apparently a risk that the chain is willing to take.

Another possibility, though — one strengthened by Hot Topic’s own remarks on the current age range of its target customers — is that the company is simply expecting that its consumers, who were once explicitly defined as teenagers, will effectively keep shopping at Hot Topic as they age.

If a once (and vaguely still kind of) teenage market-focused retailer can succeed in both keeping teenagers shopping at its stores, while simultaneously getting consumers who have aged out of that demographic to also keep shopping there — for themselves, not buying gifts for kids — that would be rather unprecedented and something to behold.

One thing that might help gauge Hot Topic’s chances in that regard would be to get a look at its financials, but that’s no easy task, since the company went private in 2013.

If nothing else, that’s kind of alternative.


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