Pricing your embroidery for a profit is a skill that must be developed early on as you establish your decorated apparel business. Far too many embroiderers pull a figure out of the air hoping it will cover their costs, which it often does not.FULL STORY
Build Your Business: Management
QRST’s serves Boston’s many colleges and universities, local musicians and bands, as well as many area businesses. Shown is owner Peter Rinning (far right) and his staff. Photo courtesy of Natalia Boltukhova, Tiny Russian Studio
Bostonian Peter Rinnig’s story is one of those “it’s-funny-how-things-work-out” tales. The “born artist” got his education in painting and graphic design and, as a music lover, he spent his college years hanging with musician friends and bands, and following the Boston music scene.
“After I graduated from school, my friends in bands would ask me to design logos and fliers,” Rinnig says. “And then eventually, as some of them were getting bigger, they started asking me to design T-shirts — and then they wanted me to print T-shirts.”
At the time, he was working for an Internet startup as an art director for marketing and promotions. But as he fell increasingly in love with his side projects, he kept accepting jobs. He soon found himself designing T-shirts for friends, their friends and their friends’ friends. “I asked my dad if he knew of a T-shirt printer in Boston, and he said [his] college roommate owned a few buildings in Brookline,” Rinnig says. In the basement of one of those them was QRST’s — then operated by Peter Moller and Mike Smith.
“I started going to them to have shirts printed as a customer, and then eventually, I was giving them tons of orders from bands,” he says. “And it was like, ‘Can you guys just teach me how to screen print?’” Moller and Smith agreed, even offering to sell Rinnig their manual screen printing press, as they were relocating and purchasing their first automatic press at the time.
Moller eventually left the company and Rinnig — having kept ties with Smith — bought it in 2001.
When Rinnig purchased QRST’s, it was located in Cambridge, Mass. “They had one automatic press,” he says. “It was 12 heads, of which four worked. Basically, when I bought [the company] I took the name, some of the squeegees and things like that, and I moved it to Sommerville and bought a new automatic.” A year later, he bought a second automatic and grew the company from there.
Today, the shop features two M&R Gauntlet screen printing presses (six- and eight-color models), three Barudan embroidery machines, a Brother GT-541 and two Kornit Breeze direct-to-garment printers.
“I knew that to increase sales, we would have to add embroidery at some point,” Rinnig says. In 2008, he bought Cambridge Embroidery — which, at the time, was run by a Cambridge firefighter out of a basement. With that purchase, Rinnig inherited a customer base that included Cambridge and Sommerville firefighters, as well as two singlehead machines. He later bought an additional four-head machine.
What separates QRST’s from other decorators, according to Rinnig, is its digital capabilities. “What makes us unique is our digital presses, especially in this [regional] area.” he says. “Someone can walk in and order as little as one piece. And you can charge a premium for that.”
Via organic growth, QRST’s sales have quadrupled since 2001, according to Rinnig. Screen printing drives the company’s business, accounting for about 70% of total sales, followed by digital printing (20%) and embroidery (10%). But Rinnig believes the company’s success is rooted in its varied services.
“It’s a total advantage,” he says. “A customer can call up and ask, ‘Is this embroidery, screen printing or digital printing?,’ and for the most part, I can direct them which way to go. If they only need five shirts, we can do it as a digital print. I don’t have to say ‘no’ to anybody for anything.”
Boston’s many colleges and universities make up the majority of QRST’s business. “Some of my competitors in the area and online require a two- or three-week turnaround,” Rinnig says. “A lot of my customers call me Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, saying their fraternity decided to have a party Friday night and they need 300 shirts.”
And that’s how the shop operates, with black and white Gildan shirts on hand at all times. A dedicated delivery person drops off orders on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Rinnig also makes deliveries. “On my way home, I pass by at least a half- dozen of these schools and I have no problem dropping orders off.”
The music scene, too, is still close to Rinnig’s heart and a large part of QRST’s’ business. The company works with various local radio stations and prints shirts for high-profile events, such as the annual Boston Calling music festival.
“We did the shirts for [Boston Calling] and then a week later, the guys in the band Fun. emailed the founders saying, ‘We really like the hoodies we saw on some of your staff members. Can we get some?’’’ Rinnig recalls. “Now, I know that those guys in that band are wearing something we made. Pretty cool.”
Beyond filling shirt orders for current music events, QRST’s sells old-school Boston band and venue T-shirts — paying homage to The Neighborhoods, The Atlantics and Tribe, to name a few — in-shop and online. “None of these bands exist anymore,” he says. “We probably sell a couple thousand of these a year. We’re keeping the flame alive.”
The first shirt the company ever put online — a design representing the now-closed local venue The Rat — sold 5,000 units in the first year alone. And next to the many old-school T-shirts in the shop sits a guitar signed by well-known local artists.
The QRST’s store also features a collection of shirts honoring surrounding neighborhoods and organizations. Local businesses small and large — the company once cranked out an 18,000-shirt order for Canton, Mass.-based Dunkin’ Donuts — are crucial to QRST’s success. “We’re right near Kendall Square, too” Rinnig says. “That’s where all of the startups are. You can literally read Wednesday night online that ‘ABC’ company just got venture money and, half the time, I’ll have an email in the morning requesting shirts.”
With the company’s community ties, word-of-mouth marketing is paramount. “It’s good and bad,” Rinnig says. “A chef will leave a restaurant and open up his own restaurant, and it’s like OK, so now we’re doing [shirts for] them both. But you can’t mess up because everybody knows each other.”
Rinnig believes social media and representing the company with a professional website are key, too. “Having come from an online world before I bought this place, I make sure that if you do a search for a screen printer in Boston, I will come up first or second,” he says. “I’ve really prided myself on making sure that happens.” In fact, QRST’s has multiple websites, including direct2apparel.com, where customers can upload an image that QRST’s will print on a white or natural shirt.
“We have our fingers in a few different pies between the online store and the different websites,” he says. “Were paying city prices for rent and employees and everything else, but if you’re a business or school down the street, we’re right here. We’re right in the center of things. We’re a city shop.”
QRST’s At A Glance
Company Name: QRST’s
Address: 561 Windsor St., Ste. A301, Sommerville, MA 02143
Founded: 1989 (Rinnig bought QRST’s in 2001)
Executive Team: Peter Rinnig and his wife, Ruth, as his sounding board
Decorating Methods Offered: Screen printing, digital printing, embroidery
Company Websites: qrsts.com (main website),
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