WHAT DO YOU DO
From Disney merch to bondage gear, what it's like to be a Hot Topic employee
In the latest installment of our
anonymous interview series, we spoke with three
employees of the nostalgically goth mall chain.
EMPLOYEE A is a small-town girl turned record exec who worked at the chain nearly two decades ago.
EMPLOYEE B is a recent hire and enthusiastic ambassador of a branch in New York City.
EMPLOYEE C is a musician who spent several years at a Long Island location.
Author, as told to
EMPLOYEE A: I started working at Hot Topic 18 years ago. That was back when malls were a big deal. It was kind of a “mallrat” scene in those days. I grew up in a really small town and that was the only place where you could get, like, gothy, indie stuff. I was 16, and I just turned in an application. I was wearing a Smiths t-shirt, and the guy behind the counter was wearing a Smiths t-shirt too. We just started talking. It turns out, they weren’t even hiring at the time, but they were doing a mock interview, because he was new to being a manager. So they ended up interviewing me so he could practice. And they ended up liking me, so they hired me.
EMPLOYEE B: I’ve been here for about a year. Before that, I was at Quicksilver. I worked for them for a long time. First, I was doing some amateur surfing. Then, I started working at their retail department in New York City. One day, I was walking by Hot Topic and decided to stop in. I was talking to one of the girls that works here. And she told me to apply right away. So I did. Then rest is history. Here I am.
EMPLOYEE C: I was looking for work and a friend of mine suggested that I should go to the mall. I'm from Long Island, and there are a lot of them here. I walked in to almost every store I could think of. Spencers. FYE. Footlocker. Hot Topic was the first one that got back to me. They were also the coolest about my tattoos and piercings.
EMPLOYEE A: When I was visiting my hometown a few years ago, I drove past my old mall and stopped in for a second just to see what it was like. My first stop was Hot Topic, of course. It was kind of a nostalgia trip. Maybe, I was expecting the experience to be radically different. It was kind of weird because things were basically the same. Like, for example, they were still selling the same brands of clothing. I doubt I can even remember any of the names. Things like Tripp, which is the purveyor of those iconic bondage pants, and Lip Service, which is known for its shitty patent leather jackets. The main difference is that now there are a lot of bands that I don’t recognize on the t-shirts.
Because I was so young when I started working there, I really had no idea just how corporate Hot Topic was becoming. It was a bureaucracy, in a way, with manuals, pamphlets, and really in-depth training sessions. It was literally no different than getting a job at Bank of America, but all the fonts on the employee literature was spookier.
EMPLOYEE B: The charm of Hot Topic, unlike other stores, is that it virtually hasn’t changed over the years. Maybe it’s a little less goth? We don’t sell Tripp pants in the brick-and-mortar stores anymore; they’re now solely available through the website. I guess that spells the end of some kind of era. The stock we carry varies throughout the years. These days, it’s a little less aggressive and unique, I would say. We still have things that are off-kilter, but the aesthetic has certainly gotten more accessible as a lot of subcultures migrate into the mainstream. So, you get a lot more moms and dads.
I started buying things at Hot Topic when I was really young. I didn’t ever have a bad attidude about it like some people did. I remember my sister and her friends would go, “Oh, I can’t go in there! It’s so scary. The music is loud and everyone’s a goth!” I’d look inside, and the first thing I’d see in the window display is Disney and Star Wars merchanidse. That’s not goth. But it is very eclectic.
EMPLOYEE C: I stopped working at Hot Topic four years ago and haven’t been back since. I have no clue what it’s like now, but I’m going to bet it hasn’t really changed much.
Hot Topic by the numbers
The year the chain was founded in Los Angeles
The year it began carrying the band t-shirts it's since become known for
The number of different band t-shirts offered by the company within a year of its opening
The number of store locations currently in operation
The total value of the chain's 2013 acquisition by Sycamore Partners LLC, a private equity firm specializing in consumer and retail investments
The per-share value of common stock acquired in the deal
Source: Hot Topic
EMPLOYEE A: The daily routine wasn’t very exciting. It mostly involved stocking shelves and helping the customers. But when you’re 16, it was just something to do. Most of the money I made, I probably blew there anyway. It was a way to meet other people with similar interests. And to get out of the house, basically.
EMPLOYEE B: I’m the fastest at recovery, so I usually get that end of the stick. Right now, I’m pretty much just doing recovery. I’ll come in. Greet the customers. Help them out with whatever they need. Relieve the managers. Mainly, I just clean and clean and clean so that the store looks good and the customers can quickly and easily find what they need.
Before that, my shifts were overnights because I used to be a stock person. Now they vary. It really depends on the manager’s needs. It changes a lot. For the most part I work closings. We replenish the store. We’re not in full gear at the moment, but by Christmas we’ll have a team come in at night to replenish stock. If you’re an overnight employee, you’re only scheduled for overnight shifts and often in a temporary capacity. You never come in during the day. You just come in and do your shift. I like it a lot. You don’t have to deal with anyone. You just unpack stock, clean up and go home.
EMPLOYEE C: What I did on any given day really depended on the day. If I was opening, I’d make sure the shelves were stocked and that the store was presentable. If I was closing, I’d be helping the assistant manager close up. During my shift, I was expected to be out on the floor fielding questions and requests. Most of the time, I found, people knew what they wanted.
EMPLOYEE A: Most of our customers were kids and teens, a lot of times, with their parents. Again, this was pre-internet, so Hot Topic was the only place where people could get weird band t-shirts, novelty hair dye and spike bracelets other than mail-order. It was a lot of cheesy stuff like that, so it attracted a lot of young goths. On the flipside, raves were also really in at the time, so it also brought in lot of people that were into baggy parachute pants and candy bracelets.
EMPLOYEE B: The demographic is anywhere from 14-years-old all the way up to 40, 45, 50. It’s the store for you as long as you like pop culture and music. It’s great to see the range in ages. Older people come in for the collectibles and the music tees. Younger people stop by for the anime and the cartoons. It’s very diverse. There’s no average type of customer. As long as you have a particular interest in this store, you come in.
EMPLOYEE C: Generally it was people like me, especially people who identify with certain musical subcultures. Occasionally, you’d get a creep. But for the most part, it was just normal people that needed a rock t-shirt or a novely gift or something like that. There was one guy who loved anything with flames on it. He’d be back every month to see if we’d gotten in anything new that fit the bill. He had Converse Chuck Taylors with flames on them. He even had flame shoelaces at one point.
EMPLOYEE A: There was one manager that was super into The Cure. She was really goth. She was like my mentor. I was really young at the time and she was probably at least ten years older than me, so I really looked up to her. There were a couple really straight-edge hardcore dudes that were also vegan and liked the Smiths, who were my coworkers. Naturally, there were also the punk kids. I mean, I don’t think any of us were particularly “cool,” but we were as cool as you can be for a small town. We were “alternative.”
EMPLOYEE B: I sound like I’m complaining, but the vibe here is pretty awesome. What I like about this store the most is the sense of community. It’s not only a team, but everybody’s best friends with everybody. Regardless of whether you’re the district manager, the store manager or just a lowly sales associate. Everybody’s always looking out for each other. At this point, it’s kind of more of a family than just a team.
EMPLOYEE C: The people I worked with were all really cool except, there was this one girl who was kind of a personality. We could dress however we wanted, so she always wore really outlandish things. Once, she came in wearing a t-shirts that said “Fuck You.” People gravitated toward her because she had a magnetic presence, but she also had a chip on her shoulder about it. She would say: “Yeah, the customers just like me more.” It’s not like we got commission or anything. It’s a weird thing to be proud of. Just because you have cool style? A couple of my coworkers had bands, too. So that was nice. There was a sense of community.
EMPLOYEE A: One of my most memorable, that is, humiliating, experiences happened when I was a Hot Topic employee. I transferred to another store location when I went to college in a bigger city. I hate to unload this story on people, no pun intended, but it’s become kind of an anecdote. One day after class I really had to use the restroom, and didn’t know where to go. Then it dawned on me: “Oh, I can just pop into Hot Topic. Because I know everybody and I can just get the key to use the personal bathroom.” I ended up—this is so gross—dropping the mother of all loads. And I go to flush. And it doesn’t flush. So I flush again and it’s that moment when the water starts to rise. It’s horrific to everybody. And it starts like overflowing everywhere. And I have to run out to escape getting it all over my pants and shoes.
The manager at the time was this super cute punk rock dude that I had a crush on. I had to tell him what was going on. I had no choice! I was so mortified. Later, I found out that I had ruined like three boxes of stock. So, that amounts to thousands of dollars of merchandise that I condemned with my toilet water. I quit shortly after that, and ended up getting another job pretty quickly. I figured: “I’m just going to cut my losses now that I shit all over Hot Topic, basically”
EMPLOYEE B: As I said, the vibe here is really positive and supportive, which people might not assume just based on our aesthetic. Last Halloween, we were giving out candy to the trick-or-treaters. Needless to say, we ended up running out. So I told the kids to wait and went out to buy some more. When I came back with the candy, there was this little girl who had been lingering around for like ten minutes. As soon as I put the candy in her bag she ran up and gave me a big hug. It’s a nonecdote, but it was super cute how excited she was. In some ways, we’re really a family store—the camaraderie is there.
Once a drunk guy followed me around the store, which was funny to everyone working there that day. He kept asking me where my boyfriend was. And what my phone number was. And it was great. He was so wasted, he was stumbling into things. Of course, there a was a risk that he’d damage our merchandise or displays, but truth be told, it was fantastic for all of us. It was a nice distraction from work, and a great laugh.
EMPLOYEE C: It was a totally normal day, when I saw some new customers near the store entrance. I knew the minute they walked in that they’d be trouble. It was a mother and son. The kid was all over the place. He was running around, touching everything. It was the craziest thing in the world. He was about 8- or 9-years-old. He was like the Tasmanian Devil. But everything he was touching was like Led Zeppelin or Alice Cooper t-shirts. I’m thinking, what’s a child want with that? Anyway, he gets to an Invader Zim tee. We happened to be out of the kids’ sizes. We only had an adult size large. So his mom asked if we had any in back stock. I looked. But I knew that we didn’t have any more because we usually restock every day. Like clockwork. I come back. I say, “Sorry kiddo, but we’re out of Invader Zim.” The kid flipped out. He starts shrieking “I want that one! I want that one!” pointing to the shirt. And then he starts cursing at me, like actual slurs that shouldn’t be coming out of a kid’s mouth.
To make a long story short, I had to call the manager. The mom was trying her best but there was no way in hell you were gonna calm down this kid. The manager threatened to call security. The mother had to physically pick him up and carry him out. A week later, the Invader Zim tees came back in, and the kid returned acting like nothing had happened. He bought the tee, and, the thing is, he didn’t even seem particularly elated. Sometimes, working at the mall, you see certain examples of parenting and think to yourself, “Thank God I don’t have kids.”
The most popular band merch stocked at Hot Topic
Pierce the Veil
Black Veil Brides
My Chemical Romance
Bring Me the Horizon
Sleeping with Sirens
Source: Hot Topic
EMPLOYEE A: For me, the main perk of the job the discount, which is probably why high school and college kids get into retail. I mean, it’s not like I was paying rent at the time. I think the discount was something like 40%, which is insane. I basically outfitted myself through junior and senior year—for better or for worse.
Personally, for me, the biggest downside of working at Hot Topic was having to suggest “add-on” items. We were constantly instructed to push people to buy more. For example, if someone bought a dress you were monitored by management to make sure you also encouraged them to buy a pair of shoes, a necklace, or perhaps one of those sparkly chain wallets. It felt a bit cheesy and pushy to me to recommend items unsolicited. Shoplifting was a huge issue, but it was expected and accounted for in quarterly budgets (I imagine all retailers are like this). It wasn’t super fun to have your bag and pockets checked every time you left the store, but it was never a main point of contention for me, really.
EMPLOYEE B: The discounts here are awesome. The sales are also pretty awesome. The customers are usually pretty awesome. You get to have conversations with them about all sorts of things. They’ll tell you about movies or TV shows or music that you had no idea about. All that good stuff. One of my favorite regular customers always keeps my updated on new comics or new superhero films. He tells me about anything he finds. So sometimes I’m more hip because of him than I am because of my job.
I have very few qualms about this place in general. Who knew this job could be so informative? I love it.
EMPLOYEE C: They main perk is that management was totally chill about dress code, tats, piercings, that kind of stuff. So I didn’t have to worry about covering up to come into work, which was a relief. I remember Footlocker seemed to have a problem with piercings. Whatever, to each his own. We’d also get pretty serious employee discounts. For example, we got first dibs at cool rock tees if they came in that would sell out momentarily. If you liked the band, you could put one aside for yourself ahead of time. It was chill.
EMPLOYEE A: We were the weirdos, so we nursed a certain rivalry with the other mall employees. The mall I was working at was really decrepit. Maybe the only other stores next to us were, like, Claire’s and Wet Seal. There was a Sam Goody for a minute, as I recall, but it went out of business before I stopped working at Hot Topic. It was definitely not a cool place to be. People went to the mall to get candy and go to Mervyns, which was another one of these classic department store chains that shut down a while ago. We were definitely the freak show there. There wasn’t a lot of cross-pollination between us and the rest of the mall employees.
EMPLOYEE B: People from other stores are pretty cool. They pop in occasionally just to say hi and chat. We even trade supplies sometimes when we’re low on change and stuff. I don’t think anybody has any sort of animosity or contempt towards us. It’s more that they see us as the store for teens. Most stores, at least in this mall, cater to a more adult demographic, which makes a huge difference. Some people have the wrong idea about us, because we’re allowed to be who we are at work. They assume we’re upstarts or misfits because we have dyed hair, tattoos and piercings. The company culture allows us to do that, and it’s definitely one upside of working her. It freaks out certain people who think, “Oh those rocker kids. Listening to that rock music.” They’re typically older and more conservative. I mean, we’ve been around for over 25 years. At the end of the day, it’s retail.
EMPLOYEE C: There was definitely a kind of camaraderie with the other people working in the mall. You’d see other store employees, and give them a nod. They’d nod back, and move along. You’re all working the retail grind. We’re all in the same boat together, just like, “Ugh, another day.”