|August 26, 2009
Custom printwear shops persevere in tough times
Author: AMEERAH CETAWAYO
Edition: Schenectady/Albany; Final
Cost pressures and competition abound in the custom printwear industry, but local companies say they are growing by finding niche customers, lowering overhead expenses and outdoing rivals with quality products.
Downtown Custom Printwear moved to 140 Erie Blvd. and opened its doors in February, exiting the amateur setup in the attic of owner Ben Sadler.
The Union College graduate and Boston native said he spent a couple of years building up clientele after spending $700 on a small manual press on eBay.
“I’ve seen my supplies — everything from the cost of shirts and ink — skyrocket since then,” Sadler said. “A gallon of white ink might have been $35 in 2007; maybe it’s $50 to $60 right now. The price of garments have gone up considerably, too.”
But he continues to upgrade equipment and reinvest. He believes generating more sales volume will spread out the impact of cost increases.
“We just have to work ! harder. We’re just very active in seeking out new customers,” Sadler said, adding that giving customers more time and quality work overall will make up the difference. “You’re giving them a product that’s worth more.”
He said by keeping overhead low and staying in a small space — 1,400 square feet — he’s able to focus on growing sales.
“It’s pretty cramped in here, but we’re making it happen,” Sadler said. “We sort of need more space already.”
Major clients for Downtown Custom Printwear are mostly Union College Greek organizations and campus groups, local businesses and local artists.
“These things pretty much sell themselves — people have a need for this kind of stuff,” Sadler said. “People are happy to talk to a real person instead of ordering off the Internet.”
Schenectady-based textiles company Marika Charles, which does its own custom printing through a special dye process, said it noticed the cost of garments rise d! ue to minimum wage increases in Pennsylvania, which is where i! t gets i ts American-made garments. The company also sources garments from China.
“We’ve been able to hold our prices because we want to maintain our business and customer base. We don’t want people to order less,” said manager Laurie Ives. “But [price] does depend on the source, the different fibers — all different variables can affect it.”
Lin Bingham, co-owner of Schenecta-Tees on State Street, said cost pressures are significant.
“It affects your profit margin,” he said. “We try to keep a stable price.”
Raising prices every two to three months would alienate loyal customers, but as shipping costs rose with fuel costs last year, Bingham said the company had to juggle what it charged customers and what it paid suppliers.
Schenecta-Tees’ growth over the past two years has come from construction-related industries — contractors, plumbers, electricians. The company went from working in a side room in Albany to a storefront in Schenec! tady in August 2007.
Bingham said catering to established businesses more than the often-free spirited arts crowd has resulted in a quicker turnaround for orders, more referrals and overall, less hassle when it comes to bill collection.
“They walk in the door with cash in hand and pay you for the shirts in full,” he said. “There’s no hassle whatsoever.”
Screenprinters have become accustomed to dealing with customers who are used to paying on credit, but having people who take advantage of trust makes it harder to offer credit on the next sale.
“It really depresses me,” said Bingham, as he talked about the times he has had to remind customers to pay.
The next step for screenprinters like Schenecta-Tees is expansion — the company has already maxed out its 800-square-foot space.
“We’ve done fairly well here,” Bingham said.
The company wants to add a larger dryer and automatic press and would have to move in! to a bigger space to do so, he said, though adding that a lot ! of scree nprinters make the mistake of upgrading too soon.
“You have to build business over a period of time,” Bingham said, “unless you have unlimited cash flow or rich parents.”
Barriers to growth come down to cash flow and credit.
To take on large jobs from the government or bigger corporations, smaller screenprinters have to have the leverage and higher credit limits to buy mass quantities of materials up front.
“There are multiple problems with trying to go too big too fast,” Bingham said.
The 2009 financial outlook for the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association, which includes screenprinters, embroiderers and other types of businesses that use imaging technologies, said companies like Schenecta-Tees and Downtown Custom Printwear are expecting the economy to turn around this year, with 62 percent of such businesses saying they are optimistic about the future of the industry.
About 19 percent of imagers said they expect c! ontraction so far this year — not as steep as last year’s 32 percent.
For those expecting positive growth in 2009, the companies said they add to the bottom line by going after new markets or expanding existing ones. About one-third, or 30 percent, of those who responded said they will be adding more staff, cutting expenses, refocusing sales staff, adding a new product line or adding production capacity.
Reach Gazette reporter Ameerah Cetawayo at 395-3040 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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