Novel-T a perfect fit for 27 years
From Hello Kitty doing the hula, the latest "Ironman" movie to Chuck Norris one-liners, the T-shirts at Novel-T World at Ward Warehouse tell a tale of popular culture through the eyes of a small family business.
Stephanie and Darrell Ching started the T-shirt shop in 1983 and are negotiating their next few years' lease this summer.
Over the past 27 years, they've grown some years and scaled back in others as they grappled with competition from big Mainland-based stores, the Internet and even craft fairs.
"Our best-seller without a doubt was with the University of Hawai'i — the WAC championship and the Sugar Bowl," said Stephanie Ching, who grew up in Kailua. "It outsold everything else we ever sold."
"We try to keep on top of what people are looking for," she said. "Right now, it's 'Ironman' T-shirts because the movie is so popular."
And Ching said the proximity to the Ward theater complex keeps movie themes popular year-round. The store also features local designers and keeps a big range of sizes.
It prints about 20 percent of its shirts right in the store with a heat transfer press that allows the store to customize shirts with team names, individual names, colors and styles.
"It usually takes longer to decide on the color," Ching said, than to print the shirt itself.
Other popular shirts over time have featured cartoons and anime, fishing designs and brand names such as Local Motion and Hawaiian Style.
More recently, the line Manoatoa (meaning steadfast warrior) has proven popular with Polynesian tattoo designs.
Ching said one-liners with funny sayings sell well, including: "I have the body of a god, unfortunately it's Buddha."
Other themes include religious, a nostalgia line that features images of bygone landmarks such as Andy's Drive-in in Kailua, Cane Haul Road shirts and reggae star Bob Marley.
Ching said the turnaround for the UH football team in 2007 proved a big hit with a number of shirts, including one that said "From last to first."
The designer printed that shirt as soon as the team won the last game. "That shirt sold so well," she said. "We had them in the store the next day."
The store has outlasted some of its mall-mates over the years by specializing in T-shirts that still average about $17 for an adult size, some jewelry, stuffed animals and small gifts.
Ching said they still try to carry as large a selection as possible but now order a smaller amount of more designs.
The store carries a wide range of sizes, from 6-month-old babies to size 6X — yes, that's XXXXXX.
Over time, Ching said the styles shift. In recent years, many men prefer the baggy look of larger sizes while women are opting for more fitted baby tees.
The Chings estimate that 70 percent of their business comes from local residents or former residents, with about 30 percent from tourists.
"We appreciate all the repeat business," she said. "Really, that's what's kept us floating all these years."
When the economy is tougher, the owners have worked longer hours and not replaced workers who quit. They'd rather work more than hire someone one month and cut their hours the next.
For the Chings, the T-shirts have provided an interesting business career that's endured even difficult economic times. And their daughter, now 17, is showing more interest in the business.
And they have enjoyed longtime customer loyalty as well as new interest in recent years of shopping local.
"People will research it online, then come in and buy a shirt. They just want to support local businesses."
In recent years, they've printed some shirts that remained popular even after an earlier vendor stopped producing them, such as: "If can, can, if no can, no can."
Looking back, the Chings feel grateful to have chosen a business that's affordable, a popular gift and accessible — "in Hawai'i, we can always wear our T-shirts all year round."