Elms Puzzles, in Harrison, Maine, makes a product that's too expensive for most people--a 500-piece handcut wooden jigsaw puzzle that might cost $800. So, in 1991, the $250,000 company came up with a plan to provide the ultimate customer service: access to the product for people who can't afford to buy it.

Customers can join the Puzzlers Club for a $50 one-time fee and rent puzzles by the week. Rental fees range from $20 to $110, depending on the number of pieces. Membership has grown from 25 members, generated from an initial mailing using the company's database, to 200 members in 1997. As an added service, club members are the only people eligible to buy used puzzles at a steeply discounted rate.

Elms vice-president Fred Stuart notes that the rental club makes wooden puzzles available to people who love them but can't afford to keep them. "It's also been good for us. Sales have increased dramatically. Rentals are a profitable end of the business, and they help regular sales because rentals get our puzzles into homes where friends and neighbors see them."

Copyright 1997 G+J USA Publishing