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Build Your Business: Shop Talk
A Mountain of Opportunity in Decorated ApparelAfter more than 45 years in business, Yellowstone T-Shirt Co. shows no signs of slowing down
A willingness to adapt has been central to the success of the Yellowstone T-Shirt Co. Photo courtesy of Yellowstone T-Shirt Co.
Yellowstone T-Shirt Co. (yellowstonetshirt.com) began in 1977 as a modest 720-square-foot building on Main Street in West Yellowstone, Montana, near Yellowstone National Park. The shop was originally opened by David Ris, an entrepreneur with screen-printing experience from a previous college job. He named the company Wild West Mercantile, offering 10 designs that were screen printed over the counter, mainly for tourists. Ris also applied transfers from various companies with a heat press, the most popular of which, at the time, being the famous image of Farrah Fawcett in her red swimsuit.
It was in 1981 that Julia Wittmer began working at the shop. With Ris’ mentorship and guidance, she learned about the screen-printing business through both on-the-job training and attending industry trade shows. She worked for Ris through 1988, but their paths would cross again in 2014, when she and her husband, Scott, purchased the business.
Seizing Opportunities in Decorated Apparel
As any business owner will tell you, reacting to unforeseen situations requires a willingness to adapt to challenging situations. Back in 1988, nearly 800,000 acres of Yellowstone Park burned from wildfires, and Ris went into action, printing T-shirts at night and supplying them daily to fire-fighting personnel. Around that time, he moved Wild West Mercantile to a location three doors down,
more than doubling the size of the building to 2,000 square feet. The company name was changed to Yellowstone T-shirt Co.
During the fires and for the following five years, businesses in the town of West Yellowstone were extraordinarily busy. Visitors wanted to see firsthand the damage caused by the fires. For Ris, this was an opportunity to provide designs that related to their visit to the park, and it resulted in a considerable financial boost to the business. Through the years, Ris continued to add more designs as well as clothing and gifts, seeing success throughout the decades.
Expansion and Growth
In the early years, Ris instilled in Wittmer the importance of listening to the customer, learning what the needs are, offering a quality product and providing a quick turnaround with unrivaled customer service. Wittmer says that since purchasing the shop nearly 10 years ago she and her husband have kept Ris’ business model in place.
“We have grown the business using this model and expanding on it,” she says. “We have a strong return clientele in both the winter and summer. In the winter, we change about half of our design wall from Yellowstone designs to snowmobiling and cross-country skiing designs.”
During the height of the COVID-19 epidemic in 2020, the Wittmers purchased a second location in Moab, Utah—the Redstone T-Shirt Co. Silk screening is not offered currently, but the growth is there, with 100 percent of the shop’s business coming from tourism alone. For the Yellowstone location, tourism accounts for 95 percent of business.
“About 75 percent of the designs that we have there are also original to the store, most of which I have designed,” Wittmer says. “We have been fortunate that Redstone has done double what we projected in the first couple of years.”
The pandemic affected business owners in many ways, and for the Wittmers, it was a time to flourish. “We were definitely some of the lucky ones during the pandemic,” Wittmer says, noting that despite their having to delay the seasonal opening of the Yellowstone location for six weeks due to COVID-19 restrictions, they still had one of their best years on record.
“Everyone wanted to get out, and the national parks were definitely a place a lot of people traveled to,” she says. “We saw a rise in people in the fall as well. People continued to home school their children, so they traveled a lot while doing it. We were so worried about what would happen, and by the end of the season, we were amazed at how well things went.”
T-Shirt Production in Action
Production in the Yellowstone location varies widely, and printing is done on the spot. Wittmer says her team prints anywhere from 30 to 250 shirts per day, and during the summer months, sometimes more than 300. Turn-around time for printing each shirt runs from three to six minutes, depending on the design and type of printing.
“Some of our silk screen designs are a two-screen process,” Wittmer says. “We have a four-platen wheel for silk screening. But we only do up to two screen designs for the on-demand prints.”
Yellowstone T-Shirt Co. is the only T-shirt shop in West Yellowstone that offers silk screening, including more than 300 designs as well as a large variety of pre-printed shirts purchased from multiple other companies.
The shop has a DTG (direct-to-garment) machine and plans are in place to hire a full-time employee to operate it. “We have done some pretty fun designs on our DTG,” Wittmer says. “Because of where we live and the capabilities of putting a photo on a T-shirt, we see some pretty amazing shots of wildlife and different areas in and around the park.”
Another example of the DTG machine driving solid returns happened in 2017 during the total solar eclipse which took place. According to Wittmer, she and her team created three eclipse-oriented designs they then printed using the DTG machine. Sales skyrocketed.
“I will say that the best part is to see how excited some people get when they come in and get to basically design their own T-shirt,” Wittmer says. “We have families who have summer homes around here, and it is a family tradition for them to come in and get their T-shirts made each year. Some of the people who bring their families in are people I printed T-shirts for when they were young, back in the 1980s. I love watching the excitement in people.”
Wittmer employs 10 to 14 people at the Yellowstone location from May through September. From October through April, that number drop to four people in response to the reduced number of tourists. At the Moab location, the season is much longer. Each of the store’s seven to 10 employees is trained in every one of the printing methods offered, as well as in all positions on the floor.
Growing by Facing Adversity
One hurdle the Wittmers have faced is simply managing the growth of the store. Since the purchase of the business, they’ve moved from one heat press to four and increased the number of cash registers from one to four as well. An online presence is in place now, and all the work and preparation to manage business generated online can be extremely demanding.
Determining how the businesses will fair during each season and the effects of the economy are constant concerns. Another ongoing challenge is hiring employees given the limited amount of housing in the area of both stores.
Reflecting on her company’s success, Wittmer advises other shop owners to be sure and put in the time and effort to successfully market themselves. “If you are truly passionate about it, just keep trying to figure out your niche and keep going,” she says. “It is tough, especially with all the online competition. Get out there and market yourself. The business will not just come because you open the doors.”
Future plans for Wittmer and her team include educating the general public about the plethora of ever-evolving techniques the company is developing. Another goal of having the ability to decorate pretty much everything for sale in the store, from coffee mugs to socks.
“With the volume of people we see daily, we can only offer so much,” she says. “I am always looking to possibly expand as far as the back area is concerned, to be able to print a lot of our own products. There are so many amazing things out there that one can do.”
Jennifer Morrell is an award-winning writer who has written for a number of national consumer and trade publications. For more information or to comment on this article, email Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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