United Vision Group, in Ossining, N.Y., makes the kind of handsome wooden gifts you won't find at Wal-Mart. The company made its way to success by stepping rung by rung up the retail ladder. It's one of a very few Inc. 500 companies that have moved their products on pushcarts.

Pushcarts? Don't laugh. With a good cart you can bring in $55,000 in a holiday season. "It's hectic when you open November 1 and close December 31," admits Joseph Coyne, a sales vice-president at United Vision. But the ruthless selling cycle taught the company invaluable lessons about product mix and product life cycles.

From carts, United Vision stepped up to mall kiosks -- temporary freestanding huts twice the size of carts. When several mall developers subsequently asked United Vision to take over vacant stores for a season, the company moved toward more sophisticated merchandising. The temporary stores' sales indicated sites ripe for expansion, and last October United Vision opened its first permanent store, called PG Arbor & Co., in New Jersey's Rockaway Town Square Mall. Meanwhile, the company's 200 or so carts and kiosks, in malls from Seattle to South Florida, kicked in 60% of last year's $24 million in sales.