Fashion is much more than what someone wears or what they listen to – it’s a lifestyle. Not every retailer lives by that credo, but DTLR Inc. certainly does, and because of that it has been a leading retailer for 30 years. By focusing on the latest and most popular trends in urban culture, DTLR has created a core of loyal customers who view the stores as centers of their communities. “Our moniker is ‘your fashion, your lifestyle,’ and we pride ourselves on having the greatest, latest footwear, apparel and music,” Chief Merchandising Officer Scott Collins says.
Originally founded as Downtown Locker Room, the retailer’s original focus was on athletic apparel aimed at runners, but soon the focus was shifted to inner-city youth culture and fashion. During the 1980s and 1990s, DTLR grew to a dozen stores in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area. By 2000, the company underwent a change in management and set its sights on expansion. Today, DTLR has more than 85 stores on the Eastern Seaboard and in the Midwest, with plans to continue expanding into new markets over the next few years.
The success of DTLR has a lot to do with the product it carries, Collins says, but many retailers can stock similar merchandise. What truly sets DTLR apart from its competitors is how the company connects with the community, and how it reflects and celebrates youth culture in a way that other retailers wouldn’t consider. “When a customer comes into one of our stores, it’s not just to pick up a pair of shoes,” Collins says. “It’s an experience.” DTLR is known for having the latest and greatest footwear, apparel and music because it pays close attention to the trends, Collins says. Part of the reason it can do this is because the company is relatively small compared to other retailers such as Foot Locker. “They are very successful at what they do and how they do it but it is clearly a different model, their size affords them many advantages but some disadvantages as well,” Collins says, adding that DTLR is small enough that it can react quickly to the ever-changing nature of what’s popular. “They’re much more like a barge and we’re much more like a speedboat.”
A big part of the reason why DTLR is so connected to the latest trends is because of its connection to the music industry. DTLR locations feature a music section, and the company works closely with record labels to promote artists. Collins says popular recording artists frequently make in-store appearances at DTLR locations for meet-and-greets with fans. “We think this connection is so important that we launched our own radio station inside our own office,” Collins says.
DTLR Radio is streamed live to the stores each day and the company controls all the content. It also sells ad time to vendor partners as a way of funding the station. “Our relationship with the record labels and our strength as a music retailer has landed us as an official ‘artist stop’ when the artists come through the DMV area,” Collins explains. “It’s a very captive audience inside our stores; they aren’t in their car or at home, they are standing right inside our store. The motto for DTLR radio is, ‘Don’t count the ones you reach, reach the ones that count.’”
But there’s more to the company’s relationship with its consumers. Collins says DTLR places a strong emphasis on getting out and meeting potential customers face-to-face, with street teams and community outreach teams going out to community events and concerts. Collins says that because DTLR concentrates so much on urban youth culture, it serves almost as much as a marketing company as a retailer, and this is another aspect of its approach that sets it apart from other retailers.
“Nobody in our sector has street teams like we do, they don’t have music like we do and they don’t have the relationship with the record labels like we do,” he says.
Among the company’s community outreach efforts are its youth football camps, which it sponsors and coordinates with NFL players in markets such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago and Washington, D.C. These free camps are open to school-aged football players, and include SAT and ACT test preparation advice as well as football skills coaching. DTLR also partners with the Tupac Amaru Shakur Center for the Arts in Georgia to create book clubs for high school boys in cities across the country. These efforts not only help to build DTLR’s brand in the community, but they help build the community, as well, Collins says. “It’s impactful,” he says.
Even though it’s worth it for DTLR, putting out the effort to keep up with trends and cultivating the right product mix at its stores is no easy feat, Collins says. “Every day you turn the key and the gate goes up the register is set on zero, and beating last year’s numbers is always a challenge,” he says.
Over the past 18 months, the company has spent more than $5 million on revamping its stores. Collins says these efforts have included outfitting stores with state-of-the-art POS and merchandise tracking systems. To help the company better manage the flow of merchandise into its stores, DTLR recently moved into a new 150,000-square-foot distribution center and headquarters that Collins says will allow the company to support more than 300 stores eventually.
DTLR is on its way there, too. Collins says the company recently opened its first store in Florida, and has plans to open another six in the state this year. New stores also have opened recently in St. Louis, New York and New Jersey, and the company is experiencing growth of nearly 20 percent a year. “I see us acquiring a chain or two in our sector, and I could see us becoming a 150- to 200-store chain in the next 12 to 18 months,” Collins says.