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Keeping Up With the Trends


I've given up trying to keep up with the latest trends. Perhaps that's why my wardrobe hasn't changed in years. I still wear button-down and golf shirts with jeans and khakis. I prefer to consider this style of dress "classic." And looking at my contemporaries, I may be right--more often than not, we dress similarly.

But there's something to be said for people--usually much younger than myself--who express themselves and their individuality through clothing and fashion accessories. They're hip. They're stylish. Maybe that's why I enjoyed a recent trip to a local Hot Topic, which caters to the oh-so-cool teen and early 20s crowd. When I entered the Ann Arbor, Mich., store, two young men, one with purple dreadlocks, the other with a gray knit cap pulled tightly down on his head, pleasantly greeted me. Rather than judge me on my age, they asked if they could help me.

Perhaps that's one of the things that makes Hot Topic so unique: It treats its customers as if they're part of the family. Maybe that's why it's one of the fastest growing retail chains in its niche, with 554 stores, including its recently launched Torrid chain, in 49 states (sorry, Wyoming) and Puerto Rico. In 2003 alone, Hot Topic opened some 109 stores. And the company plans to open another 100-plus stores this year. With all of those stores, technology plays a large role in keeping customers happy and making sure the latest trendy wear is on its shelves. In fact, Hot Topic has created a pSeries* server-based IT infrastructure so closely married to its retail fronts that the customers often have a say in what's stocked. It's that attention to the whims of the fashion-conscious and the leading-edge youth that keeps Hot Topic so uber-urban cool.

The Kids Are All Right

And if I were a club kid, I'd think it was an awesome place to shop. It carries everything the techno or goth crowd would love, including Cabbage Patch Kids underwear and Sesame Street socks, as well as an assortment of hats, caps, belts and wallets, many adorned with band and musician names and images. Of course, Hot Topic also carries a wide range of clothing, like the White Castle t-shirt I almost purchased. (The Torrid stores are aimed at similarly trendy plus-size young women.) The stores also sell compact discs and, in a nod to its raver audience, platters--something I haven't seen in mainstream music stores in years.

Based on Hot Topic's cross-country presence, the company has clearly hit on something other retail chains haven't. In this somewhat tepid economic recovery, Hot Topic is thriving, thanks in part to the way it listens to its employees and, significantly, its customers.

"This is the first place I've ever worked that is truly customer-focused," says John Horwath, Hot Topic's vice president of technology. "The CEO or other executives read every customer-comment card that comes in, and if you were to walk past the CEO's desk right now (which is just a desk in a big open room like everyone else's--nobody has an office), you'll see a stack of cards ready to be reviewed."

"Most retail companies don't establish wide are networks because of the cost involved. But we've decided to look at it in a different way, asking ourselves how we can increase sales, employee productivity and employee satisfaction." -John Horwath, vice president of technology, Hot Topic

Jim Utsler, IBM Systems Magazine senior writer, has been covering the technology field for more than a decade. Jim can be reached at jjutsler@provide.net.


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